Katharine Wang, 11, of Beijing, China, center, gathers herself before the start of the semifinal round of the National Spelling Bee on Thursday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — A spelling bee week that began with curiosity and angst over a new vocabulary test was set to end the familiar way — with bright kids spelling difficult words under the bright lights of prime-time television.
The 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee inched round-by-round toward a conclusion Thursday, with 42 semifinalists remaining from the 281 contenders who arrived to compete for the title of champion speller of the English language.
Thirteen-year-old Christopher O'Connor of Tucson, Ariz., opened the semis, approaching the microphone with his right hand in his pocket and coyly saying "maybe" when asked if he was ready. He was given the word "pultaceous", told that it meant having the consistency of porridge and heard it used in a sentence that referenced "The Price Is Right."
Christopher smiled and said "awww" when he misspelled the word — guessing "pultatious" — and was the first to hear the elimination bell.
The scores from the onstage semifinal rounds were to be combined with a computer and vocabulary test taken Wednesday night to determine a dozen or so finalists.
The winner takes home $30,000 in cash and prizes and, of course, the huge cup-shaped trophy.
The favorites included 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali of New York, who finished third each of the last two years and was one of only three spellers to advance to the semifinals with a perfect score. The others were 14-year-old Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla., and 13-year-old Pranav Sivakumar of Tower Lakes, Ill.
A win by Arvind would continue the recent tradition of Indian-American winners. There have been five in a row and 10 of 14, a run that started in 1999 when Nupur Lala captured the title in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
Two spellers had a chance to make history to complete the first pair of siblings to win the bee. Eleven-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., is trying to emulate her sister, Kavya, who won in 2009, and 13-year-old Ashwin Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio, is the brother of 2010 winner Anamika Veeramani.
The buzz at this year's bee was the introductory of vocabulary for the first time. Some of the spellers liked it, some didn't, and many were in-between, praising the concept but wondering why it wasn't announced at the beginning of the school year instead of seven weeks before the national bee.
There were two vocabulary tests — one in the preliminaries and one in the semifinals — and they were administered in a quiet room away from the glare of the onstage parts of the bee. The finals would look the same as always, with spellers trying to avoid the doomsday bell.
The first vocabulary test had some words anyone would know, such as "tranquil." But five-time bee participant Emily Keaton of Pikeville, Ky., said she had to step up her game for the second one, which included words such as "anacoluthon" (definition: a syntactical inconsistency within a sentence).
"They don't give you any easy ones on this one," 14-year-old Emily said.
The computer test did produce a couple of hiccups, but, ironically, they came from the spelling portion that has been around for years. While checking the results from the preliminary test, officials realized that their official dictionary listed alternative spellings for two of the words. When spellers and parents pointed out that "viruscide" was an OK variant of "virucide," it allowed 13-year-old Nikitha Chandran of St. Petersburg, Fla., and gain an extra point that put her into the semifinals after she was initially told she didn't make the cut.