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Jacques and the Bee: In Conversation with UVM's Celebrity Pronouncer

Split personality? UVM Classics professor Jacques Bailly has another life as Scripps National Spelling Bee pronouncer -- and burgeoning entertainment star.

It’s official: UVM Classics professor Jacques Bailly is an actual celebrity. A few days after the 89th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee concluded — culminating in an ESPN telecast of the final rounds late last week — the event’s longtime pronouncer hopped on a plane to New York to appear on "Live with Kelly," a kind of People magazine of the air, where he presided over a spelling competition between the show's co-hosts, Kelly Ripa and Common (a temporary replacement for Michael Strahan, who had decamped to "Good Morning America" the prior week causing a coast-to-coast uproar the show had barely recovered from), and this year's national bee winners, Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga. 

It was hardly Bailly’s first brush with fame. He played himself in the award winning film “Akeelah and the Bee,” was a prominent character in the highly praised documentary “Spellbound” and has been the subject of Q&A-style interviews in Time magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given Bailly’s status as a pop culture icon — a fact that students in his Latin, Greek and Etymology classes eventually discern, brightening the blahs of mid-semester, he says — it made sense for UVM Today to join the media frenzy and ask the affable polyglot a few probing questions.

To most of us, it looks like your connection to the Scripps National Spelling Bee is just a two-hour show on ESPN. But this is a year-round gig for you, right?

Yes, but it's very part-time. In the summer I record materials for the students to study. In the fall I start reviewing lists of words, along with a team of about eight other people. We have another session in the winter. Another one closer to the national bee.

You’re essentially vetting the thousands of words that will be used in the bee in these review sessions?

A lot of them are done on computer, so I'm just sitting at my breakfast table. When we have a face-to-face meeting, we’re all sitting around a big table and the associate producer and I take turns reading through lists. And someone might say, oh, that pronunciation is wrong. Or, well, in the sentence we’re using a word to mean this, but the meaning is something different, so we need to change that.  

Every year you add a huge volume of exotic, esoteric and hard-to-spell new words to the competition. English would appear to have an inexaustible vocabulary supply. 

English is what’s known as a hypertrophied, or overgrown, language. It's like kudzu vine. We could’ve stuck with Old English and turned it into modern English, and you’d have a word for everything. But we had a huge influx of French, I mean, huge. We had a huge influx of Latin. A huge influx of Greek, and then everywhere the English empire reached, even where it didn’t reach, we needed words for things. English is simply voracious. We pick up words all over the place, and it’s able somehow to sustain this size vocabulary. I don’t know anything about comparative language sizes, but English certainly has a very, very large vocabulary.

What’s your own history? How did you get involved in the glamorous world of spelling bees? 

I suppose it goes back to, as a child, I was always learning French because we went to France to visit my relatives. And that's the first thing that contributed to my spelling ability. Then in fifth grade, I had a teacher who was very interested in the roots of words. That got me started analyzing “telephone” and “biology” and “microphone” and “bioluminescence” and all those words you can take apart like Lego. Then in sixth grade, a teacher asked if I wanted to be on the spelling bee team. And I didn't know what that was, but I said, sure, tell me more.

That led to your winning some regional competitions and then, finally, to the Scripps National Spelling Bee?   

Yes, I went to the national bee in eighth grade, and I really had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t expecting to do well or badly. I had no idea. And so I took it one word at a time. And found myself the winner after two days.

The word you won with was “elucubrate,” which means to toil studiously at something. Do you have any special feeling for the word that has had such an impact on the course of your life?

I don’t really. But I do think it’s a really cool word because it has a partner that means the same thing: “lucubrate.”  It’s sort of like “ravel”  and “unravel” or “flammable” and “inflammable.” They have this partner that means the same thing that you might think would be the opposite or in contrast. And I find that kind of fun.

Even at that tender age, you had developed a pretty pointed critique of the conventional way kids prepared for spelling bees. 

I had been studying with a coach  — a teacher  — and her approach was mainly to have me memorize lists of words. And my mother was looking at this and asked what I was studying. And I think in the third year, my eighth-grade year, my mother really started to think, this doesn’t make sense. Memorizing is wonderful, but there’s a lot more to words. And so she and I kind of talked a lot, and she became very impassioned about the need to study more than lists of words but to understand their origins. My mother was very passionate about etymology — and that became a passion of mine that I spoke about a lot back then.

That’s a cause you’re still devoted to today, right?

Yes. My real mission, the reason I wanted to be involved in the bee, was because I thought the students were memorizing too much and that there was a better way to learn. And it’s not just a better way to learn to win a spelling bee. It’s that, but it’s also a better way to learn for life, which is to learn the meaning of the words, to learn the history of words, learn bigger patterns of words so that when you get some word that you’ve never seen that you don’t know, you can make a better guess at what it means as well as how to spell it. Nobody gets a Nobel, nobody gets a Pulitzer, because they can spell. It’s a gateway skill that is fundamental for a wide variety of disciplines. And what we want to do is open that doorway, get people on the right path, and show them how to go down that road.

How did you go from winning the Scripps National Bee to being pronouncer?

It was a gradual process. I was involved in local bees in Denver when I was in high school, and then I went off to college, and I learned Latin and Greek and improved my French and learned German. I went on a Fulbright to Switzerland. And I was there learning German and French and Arabic, and at that point I wrote to the National Spelling Bee. And I explained to them what my skill set was, and that I was very interested in spelling bees and had a lot of experience with them. And I said, if they ever needed any help, I’d be happy to volunteer. And it turned out they had an opening for a backup pronouncer position, and I got the job.

After the main pronouncer passed away, you were offered his job. Did that surprise you?  

At that point I expected them to do some sort of search and try to find somebody to do it. And they just simply turned to me, and I was honored and privileged to accept the job.

Scripps and ESPN have brought some pretty silly humor to the National Spelling Bee that you’re at the center of. Tell us about that.

The spelling bee is riveting entertainment people love watching. And a few years ago, the director of the spelling bee had a brilliant idea. She thought, why not make the example sentences funny? The spellers don’t really need them. They’re not doing much. So let’s take the sentences and make them funny. So we hired comedy writers, and now we have funny sentences. We didn't tell ESPN, and it took them completely by surprise. They came up to the director during the telecast and said, You are doing something. We can’t figure it out, but you are doing something, and we want you to keep it up, because the ratings are spiking.

My favorite among the examples Scripps sent me from this year's bee requires a little self deprecating humor on your part: “In the days after the bee, I watch the broadcast over and over again to hear the sound of my own mellisonant voice.”  

I like that one, because I’m kind of making fun of myself, and it makes me more accessible to the kids, because they know that I don’t do that.

The TV spots are having a little fun with you, too, right? 

Yes, ESPN has turned me into somewhat of an entertainer. Kind of strange, because I don’t think I am. The idea is they take a commercial everybody knows and they plunk me into it to reenact it. There’s a commercial where a camel is walking through an office and saying, What day is it? It’s hump day. They had me put on a bee outfit and walk around a sort of park. There were some spellers sitting around in the park. I’d say, What day is it? It’s bee-day. It’s kind of silly and fun.

Watch last year's commercial parody:

Spelling only became standardized in the early 19th century. Why is it important to have uniform spelling? 

The standard story is that Webster of Webster’s Dictionary was the real driving force behind standardized spelling. Before that point, there just wasn’t any standard spelling. But when you think about it, it’s fairly useful to have standard spelling. It does cause some consternation because you have to learn that standard spelling. I think basically it just made the language a better tool. More precise. That’s the real answer. Not a very long answer, but that’s it.