Spelling bee scandal!!  JUN 04 2004

The gang over at Coudal Partners has uncovered a mystery concerning the winning word from the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee:

We don't often traffic in conspiracy theories around here, but considering there are upwards of 250,000 words in the English language figure the odds of this: The dictionary.com "Word of the Day" for Wednesday, June 2 (as emailed to our own Dave Reidy's inbox at 4:32 AM) was "autochthonous." Less than 36 hours later, autochthonous was also the winning word in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Did someone at the Bee leak the elite championship word list to dictionary.com? Fresh Signals calls for an immediate and thorough investigation.

Congrats to CP for uncovering this and for their restraint in not using any bee puns in the write-up. So, what's going on here? Is this 1) a coincidence; 2) someone from dictionary.com is part of the process for choosing words for the Bee, autochthonous stuck in their memory, and they made it word of the day; c) some fiendish cross-marketing scheme between the Bee and dictionary.com; or 4) a leak from the Bee to dictionary.com?

There are 26 reader comments

Josh57 04 2004 3:57PM

Do the kids get much internet access before the events? If not, I doubt this is much of a scandal. Maybe a coincidence or your option #2...

Spelling Bees seems so pure as the driven snow that I have a hard time thinking poorly of them. :-)

bing14 04 2004 4:14PM

The "winning word" is just the one next on the list, though. I doubt people would be thinking conspiracy if it were just a word in the middle of round 14.

Coudal34 04 2004 4:34PM

We've just done a cursory cross-referencing of all the words in the Bee and those featured during the last month at Dictionary.com. For now anyway, 'autochthonous' looks like the only match. Now what was the word that made the runner-up faint? maybe there's something there...

Andy Baio45 04 2004 4:45PM

The word that made Akshay Buddiga faint was "alopecoid." After fainting, he stood up again and spelled the word correctly. He went on to take 2nd place.

Ry Rivard26 04 2004 6:26PM

Bling is right, if I understand it right there is no word for the final word (or would that be "penultimate"). Unlike a tournament which has a set number of rounds or a quiz which has a "best of," a spelling bee is sudden-death, play till you drop, like dance-off's in the 1920's. Unless of course autochthonous was planned as the finale -- which, it seems is the bigger scandal -- and Akshay Buddiga took a fall. Congress should have hearings.

Buzz Andersen54 04 2004 6:54PM

Penultimate means next to last--not last.

Flash Anderson08 04 2004 7:08PM

And his name is Bing, not Bling.

Kip Ingram37 04 2004 9:37PM

Wow; a post with comments enabled. I thought they were gone for good. :-) Was there an issue of some kind with them, Jason?

I agree with Ry; no word should be "planned" as the last word. I'm betting this whole thing is just a coincidence, though.

-- Kip

tim13 04 200410:13PM

it's worse!
it's related to the conspiracy theory that bush actually has a brain and isn't a puppet of the oil-military machine

how you ask?
the CIA was on the track to finding out but.....

Fred Blasdel02 04 200411:02PM

Jason, you should have comments on the remaindered links...

I went to high school with Ashley White, and I had no idea she was a mother. She hadn't told anyone she was in Spellbound until a few of us saw it and pressed her about it. She was very outgoing but she didn't talk much about herself at all. She must have somehow hidden the pregnancy from everyone.

Thanks for the link! I'll see if i can track down some of my friends back in DC to see how she is doing.

Ted41 04 200411:41PM

Hmmm, I have a feeling that I'm walking straight into this but....
Didn't the same sort of thing happen prior to D-Day?

Dave54 05 200412:54AM

hehe...I liked the way you listed your opinions as 1, 2, c, and 4.

Thomas Edwards55 05 2004 5:55AM

Why is it called a Spelling Bee?

Cracker McSmokin50 05 2004 5:50PM

It's short for Spelling, Beeatch.

Gambit59 05 2004 5:59PM

A spell B, hehe I would not get past the 1st round. I still cant spell big words. If I was a super hero write, spelling would for sure be my weakness.

Kip Ingram05 05 200410:05PM

The remaindered links were *all* comment enabled for a while. I visited more often when that was the case, the opportunity to participate in appropriate ways seemed to lure me in. :-)

"Bee" as in spelling bee is an old word with rural origins. I've also heard of quilting bees.

Anonymous12 05 200411:12PM

I was a competitor in the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee and it was definitely not a scam. The National Word list is chosen months in advance so that the pronouncer has time to make sure he can pronounce all of the words and that he has all of their definitions and origins. There is absolutely no way that the winner could have known that "autochthonous" was going to be his winning word, nor could dictionary.com have known. He won because he memorized all of the words in the dictionary and their meanings. He worked hard, so he won. The Spelling Bee is not the kind of place where scams and dirty underhand tricks occur... it's a family event and it is purely based on the contestants' knowledge and amount of hard work and studying. So the answer to the original question is that it was a coincidence.

Kyle13 05 200411:13PM

Adding to this conspiracy--the word the 2nd place kid got out on (scharmerei), a German word, was pronounced incorrectly (to the best of my knowledge). I've had 5 years of german, and the pronouncer pronounced it as "schwermerei"

However, i could be wrong. I will be checking with my German exchange partner tomorrow.

Stefan Seiz55 06 200411:55AM

I am german, and "scharmerei" certainly isn't a german word ;-)
Schwermerei - or better Schw√§rmerei (with an ä) - is and means something like enthusiasm or fency...

Brian21 06 200412:21PM

Reminds me of the story, in the news once again these days, about the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzles that featured code names of the D-Day beaches in the days prior to the invasion. An interesting story, and, ultimately, not a coincidence, as people had long concluded.

Kyle16 06 2004 4:16PM

My mistake - I meant to say that "schwarmerei" came from German.

They said that "schwarmerei" came from German, so I assumed it was pronounced like it would be in German. It's likely that the person who first used it as an English word just misspelled/mispronounced it and it became english.

Ian32 06 2004 5:32PM

I always knew that there was a scandal with dictionary.com

creepy dude27 07 200411:27AM

Autochthonous has an antonym by the way-heterochthonous.
Like-when it comes to North America-the Sioux are (relatively) autochthonous and Europeans are heterochthonous.
So really autochthonous should be revised to homochthous-cuz Indians are gay and shouldn't be allowed to marry.

P.S. those Oxford experts are wrong to say only four words end in -dous. Macropodous is perfectly serviceable and not all that obscure.

Bo57 07 200411:57AM

Are the odds really that great against this happening? After all, the "word of the day" list and the spelling bee final rounds will traffic exclusively in rarely-used and very unusual words. So the English language as a whole is not the appropriate base for calculating the probability of a word appearing in both; it would take a true lexicographer to properly calculate the odds.

Abbey57 07 200411:57AM

I can't believe someone would even act like that was a scandal. even if autochthonous was the "Word of the Day" the day before the spelling bee, the kid who won had studied that word already... precisely why he didn't write it on the back of his name card with his finger like he did with most of the words he got (if not all). he was crying on the last word because he knew it and he knew he won. it was no set up. thats so ridiculous to think that they tried to set it up so that kid could win. he studied his ass off after last year's competition. he's a smart kid, as well as the rest of them. its an innocent competition to give these kids money (which they are probably smart enough to invest in college one day) who tried hard and performed the best. * on another note, i jumped and felt so bad for the kid who got second place when he fainted earlier in the competition. poor guy :(

Anonymous57 07 2004 4:57PM

I, as a competitor in the Bee, completely agree with Abbey. And, as to the whole thing about the word "schwarmerei" - it is pronounced exactly the way the pronouncer said it. Look it up: the pronunciation is "shfer-muh-riy". That is how the pronouncer said it, and even if he wants to change the pronunciationt to make it easier for the speller to sound out, he cannot because it is against the rules. He has to go strictly by the dictionary pronunciation. Hope that clears up this whole "scandal" nonsense.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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