Aeriferous. That’s the word that cost me the spelling bee championship back in the sixth grade. All these years later, I still have no idea what it means, but you can bet I’ll never forget how to spell it.
Like-minded souls (some might say nerds, and I’m cool with that) gathered last Friday night at the Book Cellar for the shop’s annual Adult Spelling Bee. Owner Suzy Takacs insisted “this is for fun,” but there’s nothing funny about tuberculosis, which was the first word to stump a contestant. Many of the 14 competitors (13 women and Lionel) clutched glasses of wine to calm their nerves: They were battling not just for bragging rights but for a gigantic dictionary.
Host Kelsie Huff, a comedian who regularly performs at the Book Cellar with The Kates, lightened the mood with her opening comments. “I’m sure many of you take your spelling seriously. You correct your friends’ Facebook status,” she joked, and the embarrassed laughter that followed indicated she had hit the mark.
Though Huff ran the show like a Second City improv sketch, the spellers were all business, acing words like “bureaucracy” and “numismatist”; judges James Kennedy and Robbie Q. Telfer confirmed correct attempts with shouts of “boo-yah.” Still one by one the contestants fell, bested by “fricassee,” “mellifluous” and “thurible,” which Catholics know better as “that incense thing-y.”
And then there were two. “Now it’s like ‘The Hunger Games,’” said Kennedy. “Who’s Katniss? Who’s Peeta?”
After more than an hour and roughly 10 rounds, Elizabeth Lund, an editor with the Medical Library Association, emerged the champ with e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-i-o-n, which she traced out on the palm of her hand.
Given the ubiquity of spell check, it’s easy to question why we still bother with spelling bees at all. “I don’t know if we’re losing anything necessary to society,” Lund said of the decline of spelling, though she wasn’t about to turn down her prize package.
Telfer, a poet and director of performing arts for Young Chicago Authors, posited that spelling simply serves as another form of dominance. “There is this compulsion, a Western inclination, to conquer everything.”
Young adult author Kennedy, who lost his grade school competition on “doorjamb” (done in by the word’s “killer b,” just a little spelling humor), had a different take: “Every language needs a certain pointlessness.”
Pointlessness aside, it makes a certain amount of sense to not rely entirely on computers when it comes to language. After all, spell check isn’t infallible; it didn’t know how to deal with aeriferous either.