Spelling and intuition

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Long have we pondered the overwhelming dominance by individuals of Indian heritage over the spelling bees.  Do they have some sort of mysterious power or secret for memorizing hundreds of thousands of obscure words? 

Now we have an answer from one of the masters himself, Dev Shah, a ninth-grader living in Largo, Florida, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in June of this year.


I won the National Spelling Bee

This is what it takes to master spelling.

By Dev Shah, WSJ


I never expected to win. I had lost more than two dozen spelling bees since I started competing in the fourth grade, and last year, I didn’t even qualify for the national competition. If that wasn’t enough pressure, this was my final year of eligibility. This spelling bee was my last shot.

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is an incredible event. Each year, some 11 million students from across the country take part in the spelling bee circuit, all vying for the championship title. After competing in rigorous local bees, about 200 spellers make it to the national stage, and a handful of them qualify for the grand finals. Of course, only one can be crowned the National Spelling Bee champion. This year that student was me.

How did I finally break through? There are almost half a million words in English dictionaries. Add in thousands of roots and hundreds of language patterns, and it is impossible to memorize everything. Once I realized that, I changed the way I trained and started focusing on sharpening my intuition.

The skill of guessing is everything. Though I could — and did — study words for hours on end, I knew my greatest asset would be learning to guess correctly. In stressful situations, sometimes you just have to breathe, steady yourself and leave things to chance.

As you watch the cerebral spellers concentrate on the difficulty terms that are thrown at them, knitting their brows and concentrating mightily to recall the arcane expressions they face, you might think that the last thing they'd do is guess.  But, according to Dev, they do indeed guess, but their guesses are educated, their intuition is calculated.

However, you could be the best speller who ever lived and still lose. Champion spellers are adept at more than just decoding language. They know how to manage their emotions onstage and think clearly under pressure. They also know how to lose with grace.

These are the skills that I put into practice when I had to guess the spelling of a word I didn’t know. The word “rommack" is special; it has an unknown etymology. It’s used only in England, and it means to "play boisterously.” At first, I thought of the word frolic, which is close in meaning, but I knew the panelists were trying to trick me. The expert linguists who design the spelling bee choose the competition words carefully. They want spellers to confuse a word with other simple words. I knew I was running out of time — so with 40 seconds left on the clock, I put my money on “R-O-M-M-A-C-K.”

Dev Shah's parting advice in this essay shows that he is not only a smart and excellent speller, he is also a wise wizard.

Though I spelled this word correctly, I’ve been stung by a fatal guess many times before. To be able to lose with grace is an art. Imagine you’re onstage — in front of thousands of eyes and being watched by millions online — and after trying your hardest, you get a word wrong. You hear the infamous bell, and everyone claps for you out of consolation. It is hard to leave when you’re eliminated, especially if it’s your last year of eligibility. But the only thing you can do is walk off gracefully.

Dev's final paragraph shows that he has learned the real lesson and reward of participating in the spelling bee:

Winning the spelling bee is worth more than having an impressive line on my résumé. Spelling has better prepared me for life. Competitive spelling teaches you to be unafraid to take risks. No matter how well we may think we know something, eventually, we all have to take a guess.

Week after week, I watch athletes compete at all levels.  Some win, some lose.  What is most admirable about them is that, even though they may lose some heartbreakers, they will go out again the next time and try their best.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Deven Patel]


  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 9:05 am

    Fascinating. I'd always thought the answer to the question of South Asian spelling dominance had been "inductive", that is, owing to their vast word-horde of memorized root lists (which doesn't hurt), but it's actually due more to a _deductive_, fundamentally intuitive, etymological understanding, plus the courage to "guess".

    Hear that, kids? Reasoning is good for you!

  2. Fred Smith said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 12:17 pm

    The Indian community has taken a special interest in competitive spelling as a point of pride. See the folowing article from the NYT in 2021:

  3. Arun said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 1:56 pm

    What struck me was the second sentence:

    > I had lost more than two dozen spelling bees since I started competing in the fourth grade

    In particular, that Dev Shah both started so young and had so many opportunities to compete.

  4. Paul Clapham said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 2:56 pm

    Reminds me of my time as a spelling competition entrant (we didn't call them "bees", not that I remember). One word I was given was pronounced "VISS-id". I asked for a sentence containing it: "The stems of the petunias were VISS-id". Aha, I thought, like "viscous". So the answer was "viscid". Got mentioned in the newspaper article for that one. (Yes, this was a very long time ago.)

    Anyway, there's an example of the mechanics of words. Memorization is not especially useful at that level of competition for sure.

    And no, I didn't win that competition. But I would never have said that I "lost" it. I can't imagine looking at a competition with many entrants in that way. Look at all of the people who enter marathon races, for example. Almost none of the finishers think that they "lost" the race.

  5. KeithB said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 6:25 pm

    So basically it is like the old con game about predicting football scores.
    You send 100 people one of two predictions
    Then you send the 50 people that got the correct prediction one of two more
    Then you send 25 people…
    By the time you get down to 4 people, you have given them 5 or 6 correct predictions in a row, so they are willing to bet large sums for any other predictions.

    So, in the spelling bee, the winner is simply the one who made all the correct guesses.

  6. Arun said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 6:42 pm

    @KeithB in the con game analogy, the basis of the con is that the conman has no special insight into to the outcome of games and does little more than flip a coin. Here, meanwhile, the contestants are reasoning on some mix of etymology, psychology, and linguistic intuition.

    A stronger analogy might be to imperfect information games like poker. But this analogy feels inapt as well because poker depends so much on reading the opponent, which is only incidentally part of the spelling bee dynamic as described here.

    I think the best analogy is to chess at the grandmaster level. At times, a grandmaster will see an opening line outside of their preparation and blunder, but by leaning on their preparation and a dash of opponent psychology, they can often find their way through.

  7. Josh R. said,

    November 30, 2023 @ 6:54 pm

    I will never forget my spelling bee experience in the 7th grade. I came to English class one day to find that we were doing a class spelling bee to find out who would go to the school spelling bee. I hadn't studied, I hadn't even known about it, but I've always had a knack for spelling, and I ended up winning. Notably, we weren't doing such heady words as psammophile or viscid, just your everyday 7th/8th grade reading level vocab.

    I went to the school-wide bee, and watched a student ahead of me get tripped up by "fierce." This was going to be easy. I knew every word the students before me had been given. Finally it was my turn. My word was "calendar." On the notepad in front of me, I wrote out "calendar". Then I hesitated. Was it "calender?" I wrote that out, too, and looked at both. Finally, I spelled out C-A-L-E-N-D-E-R.

    After announcing I was wrong, the 8th grader who was acting as emcee silently pointed to the "calendar" I'd written out.

    I will never forget how to spell "calendar."

  8. postmortes said,

    December 1, 2023 @ 5:16 pm

    Can anyone confirm the claim in the article that 'rommack' is an English word? Chambers dictionary doesn't give it, which is rather suggestive that it's not; while online I could find only Merriam-Webster offering a definition, albeit without any supporting evidence for its claims. Which rather makes me wonder if it isn't a trap-word….

  9. Viseguy said,

    December 1, 2023 @ 11:21 pm

    Back in the early '60s, when I was in seventh grade, I came in third in an interscholastic spelling bee, having flubbed "bequeath" (I said "ie" instead of "ea"). After that I was certain I'd never misspell that word again. What I didn't know was that I would end up spending the last 25 years of my professional life as a lawyer specializing in wills and trusts. And, yes, dammit, I never did misspell that word.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2023 @ 5:32 am

    Postmortes — "rommack" — yes. Attested in the OED.

    rammack verb
    regional (chiefly British).

    † transitive. With up. To bring to light by rummaging. Obsolete.

    British English
    intransitive. To rummage about; to clamber around.

    British English
    transitive. To turn (things) upside down by rummaging; (also) to search through or ransack (a place).

    British English

    intransitive. To rush about furiously; to romp or gambol boisterously. Now rare.

    British English

    Probably a variant or alteration of another lexical item.
    Etymon: rummage v.
    Probably an alteration of rummage v., after ransack v.

    British English
    U.S. English

    Variant forms
    Compounds & derived words
    rammacking, adj. & n. c1844–

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2023 @ 7:41 am

    Sorry, failed to appreciate that the entry that I which consulted did not repeat the headword in the text to which it linked. What I initially found (and what led to the text above) read :

    rommack, variant of rammack, v.
    transitive. With up. To bring to light by rummaging. Obsolete.

  12. Jason M said,

    December 2, 2023 @ 10:06 am

    @Josh R also Iost a middle school (junior high, actually, as it was called back in the day) spelling bee on “calendar”. My experience was different. I was so proud of myself that I knew there was an “a” instead of an “e” before the “r” I got ahead of myself and spoke so fast to get to the “a” I forgot to say the “n” in the middle. When I lost, it took a while before someone could convince me I spelled the word wrong because I was so focused on the “a”.

    So the moral of my story was about hubris and rushing to show off because I already knew how to spell the damned word itself.

  13. Julian said,

    December 2, 2023 @ 8:17 pm

    @Jason M "because I was so focused on"
    A bit off topic, but an interesting story with the linking idea 'attentional blindness':
    I used to work transcribing the proceedings of the Australian parliament. A voice recognition program would generate the first draft, which you had to correct.
    On one occasion the voice recognition program generated "Dyson Hayden".
    Feeling very clever about my broad general knowledge (it helps in that job), I thought: "That looks wrong. 'Hayden' was Bill Hayden, the former leader of the Australian Labor Party. Justice Dyson's name ends in '-on'."
    To check this I quickly googled the justice's name. I was right: the first result was "Justice Dyson HeyDON".
    So I corrected "Hayden" to "Haydon".
    I was so focused on the second syllable of the name that I didn't notice there was also a mistake in the first syllable.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    December 3, 2023 @ 6:14 am

    "I was so focussed on the second syllable of the name …" — as was I, while reading your comment, and therefore kept looking at Dyson to locate your uncorrected error rather than Hay

  15. Jason M said,

    December 3, 2023 @ 4:02 pm

    Haha. I did he same as @PhilipTaylor….. All of this is better than intentional blindness I guess!

  16. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 4, 2023 @ 4:18 pm

    It makes sense that the chief virtue in spelling bees is effective guessing – that's also the chief virtue in trivia and crossword puzzles and various other sorts of apparently knowledge-based competitions. You can't actually know everything, so instead you have to be good at using partial information to make effective guesses.

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