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King Bee

Professor Jacques Bailly won the National Spelling Bee in 1980 — and still reigns as its resident etymologist and pronouncer

By Kevin Foley Article published May 21, 2003

Jacques Bailly
Jacques Bailly on the podium of the 2002 spelling bee, armed with the essential tool of the pronouncer's trade: a massive dictionary. (Photo: Mark Bowen/Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee)

In one week, on the bright National Spelling Bee stage in Washington, D.C., a 13-year-old’s pulse will spike into triple digits and ESPN cameras will zoom in like predators as she struggles to recall whether “prospicience” is an exception to the i-before-e-except-after-c rule. She’ll stall for time by asking for the part of speech or requesting to hear the word in the sentence.

And Jacques Bailly, an assistant professor of classics and the competition’s official pronouncer, will provide the information coolly and crisply, perhaps too quickly for the struggling student.

Beneath his official veneer, though, Bailly will be rooting for her.

“It’s dramatic and tense,” he says of the event, which attracts strong ratings on a television channel characterized more by exploits of brawn than brain. “These students are so open with their emotions and facial expressions. You so badly want them to spell every word correctly.”

A former champ
In 1980, Jacques Bailly himself had the right combination of memory and luck. He spelled every word properly and won the bee. He says that victory, which was more curse than blessing in high school, both reflected and amplified a personal bent toward study and contemplation that led to his career as a classicist.

Now, in his part-time work with the bee (in addition to his role in the national event, Bailly helps compile word lists and study guides and writes a column on etymology for competitors), the professor tries to promote two main objectives in the competition, priorities that sometimes come into some conflict with each other.

“What keeps me working on this is a twin goal to help keep the bee sensible – at times, the word lists have been ridiculous, with words that no one knows, that no one would want to know – and maintain its high standard of excellence,” he says.

Spelling isn’t really a measure of intelligence. It says nothing about compassion, self-worth and humanity. It doesn’t even indicate much about vocabulary; competitors can easily spell words they’d be hard-pressed to define or use in a sentence. And the competition is fierce: On that stage, 249 bright youngsters crumple one by one before an assault of “lorgnette,” “myrmecologist,” “naologist” and “oxydactyl.” Some will accept defeat with stoicism – the national bee is a single-elimination competition – and some will collapse into tears.

The event is so dramatic that it has inspired an actual drama: A narrative documentary, called Spellbound, that was nominated for a Sundance award and reviewed favorably by The New Yorker. (“If you want to understand why I stay involved in the bee,” Bailly says, “watch that film.”)

Bad for kids?
But some find that intensity of emotion an off-putting, even troubling, aspect of the competition. Vermont, for example, is the only state that does not send a competitor to the national bee; the required individual competition here has been replaced by a team event. Bailly suspects that part of the reason that the bee does not take place here is a sense that it threatens fragile self esteem.

Bailly doesn’t buy that. He says there’s no shame in stepping down after misspelling a word, and plenty of ego-bolstering affirmation in spending a week in Washington, D.C. with a crowd of bright, like-minded peers. He loves the diversity of the competition, the children of every class, race and creed united by an arcane interest — and an uncommon ability to pursue their goals with rigor.

“I see these absurd bumper stickers – ‘Don’t Sweat the Details,’ ‘If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It?’ – and they bother me,” he says. “Why would I write a Ph.D. dissertation, then? Lord knows it wasn’t fun. You do these things because they are challenging and because they are personally worthwhile.”