Stupid Human Tricks

By Andrew Barker / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

“I never did try to learn the whole dictionary, like some kids,” says Jacques Bailly ’88. “But I did memorize a hell of a lot of words.”

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with a deeper understanding of the dictionary—or a deeper love for words of any language—than Bailly. After growing up speaking French and English, he won the National Spelling Bee at fourteen, then fell in love with Greek and Latin while earning a classics degree at Brown. He eventually also picked up German, Arabic, and Chinese, and after earning a doctorate, became associate pro- fessor of classics at the University of Vermont.

Lest anyone think memorizing all those words was a waste of time, Bailly is now the pronouncer and resident etymologist for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is held each spring in Washington, D.C. Thanks to ESPN’s coverage of the annual event, Bailly has become the public face of spelling.

This year Hollywood came calling. During three days of shooting in March, he played himself in a film that will be called Akeelah and the Bee, which tells the story of one girl’s unlikely rise to win the national spelling bee. “I guess I did some acting,” Bailly says. “Mostly I took on the persona of the pronouncer. It’s a mask, it’s a voice, it’s a manner of speaking. It was great fun.”

Bailly took on the job of the spelling bee’s associate pronouncer fifteen years ago because he didn’t like the way the tournament was developing. He thought the word lists were getting too esoteric, and he wanted to push for a change. “I just felt a commitment to make this strange contest more educationally useful,” he says.

Ever since, Bailly has helped to make sure the national bee—and its study materials—emphasizes words that fit into patterns of meaning, origin, or spelling whenever possible. Still, there are always some stumpers in the bee that serve no educational purpose whatsoever. He cites geeldikkop and dghaisa and leag as examples that are “virtually impossible” to spell correctly without “brute force” memorization. “Leag is a kind of kelp of unknown origin,” he says. “It’s a word of utter uselessness. It fits no pattern, and it’s only got one highly specific meaning. Memorizing words like that is probably the more reliable way to win the bee, but it’s kind of a stupid human trick.”

As much as Bailly loves words—even the utterly useless ones—it’s the drama of the bee that keeps him coming back each year. “It’s fun to watch the kids,” he says. “They don’t hide anything. A lot of them don’t even have a game face yet. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from blurting out the spelling for them.”

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May / June 2005