Sunday April 14, 2013

If the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- which was workshopped at Barrington Stage -- was performed today it would have to include a vocabulary section for verisimilitude. That would bog down the production, but the new vocabulary requirement for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is a welcome idea. It emphasizes to schoolchildren, as well as adults, that words have no meaning without the context of their definition.

While it is remarkable to watch kids in their teens and younger spell words most adults couldn’t get three letters into without hearing the dreaded bell, this is more an exercise in memory skills than language skills. If you don’t know what a word means than knowing how to spell it is irrelevant as you will never get a chance to use it in writing or conversation.

In announcing the change last week, Spelling Bee Executive Director Paige Kimble said the organization was motivated by a desire to reinforce the bee’s original goal, which was to encourage students to improve both their spelling and their language skills. Beginning with the competition this May 28-30 in Washington, D.C., spellers will take a computerized vocabulary test set up similar to an SAT exam. As this hardly lends itself to good television, only the spelling contest will be done in front an audience and cameras, but as both spelling and vocabulary will count equally in determining who moves on to the finals and eventually wins, the spelling champion won’t necessarily be the overall champion.

The Spelling Bee has long performed a national service that will only be enhanced by the new emphasis on vocabulary. Proper spelling is taking a pounding in this era of social network shorthand ("today" is not spelled "2day, "enough" is not spelled "enuf") and the competition plays a part in what must be a relentless effort to prevent or at least slow the corruption of the English language.

Vocabulary is corrupted by repeated misuse and misunderstanding that cause words to shape-shift in meaning ("niggardly," a benign word defined as ‘grudgingly mean about spending or granting,’ has all but disappeared from the lexicon because of misplaced hysteria), and jargon ("sequester" will be forever altered in meaning after this winter’s budget shenanigans.) The Spelling Bee’s new emphasis on definitions will draw attention to the importance of using words as they are meant to be used and not carelessly altering their meaning.

It should surprise no one that the hyper-competitive parents of top Spelling Bee contenders are reportedly unhappy with the change in emphasis, but the schoolkids themselves shrug it off, figuring it is just one more thing to learn. They’ll be better off for it, as will anybody, young or adult, who takes words seriously enough to spell them correctly and use them properly.