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Can You Spell “Seapoose”?

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Many years ago, I misspelled the word “doughnut” in the finals of my elementary school spelling bee. I blame my sister, who worked at Dunkin’ Donuts at the time. I spelled the word just the way it was on the sign.

Last weekend, I had the chance for spelling bee redemption. With two teammates, I signed up for a bee to benefit my town’s PTA. Twenty-one teams of three entered the bee. One team brought in a spelling whiz friend from out of state. Some teams talked trash: “Think you’re a speller? Try ‘hors d’oeuvres.’” The formidable field included engineers, librarians, doctors, a Scrabble champ, lawyers, and teachers.

Our team was pretty impressive, too. My teammate Eileen is a former corporate lawyer and the only person I know who read the dictionary for fun as a child. She gives her kids extra spelling words for homework and has banned spell check from her home computer. Our teammate John, a pharmacist, had an easy-going sense of humor and an expertise with scientific words. As a writer and editor, I’ve proofread everything from legal documents to annual reports to medical journals—even crossword puzzle books. I’m afraid my spelling has gotten rusty, however, because unlike Eileen I’ve always kept my spell check on.

In the weeks leading up to the bee, I boned up on frequently misspelled words from an Internet list that included such tough but familiar words as “hemorrhage,” “hierarchy,” “nonpareil,” and “conscientious.” Of course, none of these words came up at the bee.

In the bee’s first round, we competed against four other teams. The three of us sat on the stage at a round table with a dry-erase board. The host pronounced a word, gave its definition, and used it in a sentence. Then we had thirty seconds to spell it.

The first three words in the round (“pristine,” “mosaic,” and “subordinate”) weren’t difficult and all the teams spelled them correctly. The next word, “deterrent,” will haunt me as doggedly as “doughnut.”

Our team spelled the word three different ways (including the correct way) on our scratch pads and hurriedly wrote “deterrant” on the board.

One more misspelling and we were out. We breezed through “subjugate,” struggled with “geochrony,” and triumphed over “armistice.”

The next word the host pronounced was “seapoose.” A collective “huh?” arose from the crowd. A “seapoose,” we learned, is a small inlet. “Seapoose” stumped all five teams. Because it was our second misspelling, our team was dead.

Naturally, as I sat and watched the subsequent rounds, I thought many words were easier to spell than the obscure “seapoose.” There were “chivalry,” “cyclops,” and “exhilarated,” for example. On the other hand, some words like “blithesome,” “froufrou,” and “ultimogeniture,” were more difficult. “Commensal,” “rudbeckia,” and “garderobe” flummoxed everyone.

Finally, all but the final four teams had been eliminated. One team missed “lackadaisical,” and another was squashed by the tricky second “e” in “speleology.” The only two teams remaining were the Spelling Bees and the Killer Bees. The Killer Bees won the day’s longest round with two daunting words: “pentateuchal” and “compositae.” However, it was the Spelling Bees who took home the trophy at last for spelling “euphonious.”

I’ll probably never get past my bad “doughnut” experience, but it was fun to spell again. And even though our team misspelled “deterrent” we will be back for next year’s bee—undeterred. And by the way, Eileen, I wrote this with spell check turned off.

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