“Please don’t be ‘absinthe.’ Please don’t be ‘absinthe,’” chanted Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) as he got settled behind the microphone at this year’s Press vs. Politicians Spelling Bee, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26. The bee pits members of Congress against members of the media. We were in Round 3; the category was “tipsy words.”
“Gimlet,” stated Jacques Bailly, the bee’s moderator, who’s famed for being the official pronouncer at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Deutch spelled the name of the lime-flavored adult beverage effortlessly: “g-i-m-l-e-t.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee may be more famous, but the Press vs. Politicians Spelling Bee is more hilarious — and easier. Most of the words aren’t head-scratchingly strange, and spellers are eliminated after two (not one!) misspellings. Ananya Vinay, this year’s winner of the national bee, was the bell ringer. Seated next to Bailly, she had a high-pitched small bell to ring when a contestant misspelled the first time and a low-pitched big bell to ring for elimination-inducing second misspellings.
And unlike the national bee, with its underage spellers, it’s completely within the rules to be on the stage while holding a wine or a beer — or two, as the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri had with her when she was asked to spell “zucchini” in Round 8 (weird national holidays). She spelled the vegetable’s name correctly.
To kick off the night of laughter, the topic of Round 1 was jokes.
“Did you know that claustrophobic people are more productive at thinking out of the box?” Bailly asked contestant Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).
“B-o-x. Box,” replied Peters from the stage.
The audience erupted in laughter and applause.
“You want me to spell ‘claustrophobic’?” asked Peters, turning serious after the audience calmed down.
Of course the answer was yes, and Peters said “c-l-a-u-s-t-r-o-p-h-o-b-i-c” so fast I could barely keep up.
Round 2 was words featured in Hamilton. “Bursar,” “quagmire,” and “bayonet” were no problem for the spellers, but Politico’s Seung Min Kim got “in loco parentis.”
“Are you serious?” she asked.
“I am indeed,” replied Bailly.
“That’s not a word,” Kim said softly to herself as she smiled and shook her head. (Yup, that’s three words, and they’re not exactly in English either.)
“As in, ‘Yo, I’m a tailor’s apprentice, and I got y’all knuckleheads in loco parentis,’” Bailly rapped, in order to help her out.
Unfortunately, Kim got the bell ring when she misspelled the term as “en loco parentis.”
In keeping with the more adult-oriented tone of the bee, Round 6’s theme was NSFB words — words that may “Not be Suitable For the National Spelling Bee.” These “dirty” words included “dongle,” “infarction,” “uvula,” “rectory” and “assonance.”
When Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) was lobbed “damson” at the end of the NSFB round, he responded with “I thought you said ‘covfefe.’” (Sadly he misspelled the name of the small plum as “damsen.”)
The spellers were excellent enough that Bailly ran out of themed rounds and had to go random. After Deutch was eliminated for misspelling the seemingly simple “stela” (pronounced “steel-ah”) as “stila,” it was down to just Todd Gillman, the Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. He became champion by correctly spelling the relatively unremarkable word “somatotype.” His prize: a championship wrestling belt.
Not only did a journalist win the bee, but the press team beat the politician team 39 to 36.
The bee is all for fun and a good cause — raising money for the National Press Club’s nonprofit Journalism Institute, which promotes press freedom and offers scholarships and professional development.
The press contestants not already mentioned were Hadas Gold (CNN), Vann R. Newkirk II (the Atlantic), Jonathan Salant (NJ Advance Media) and Art Swift (Gallup). The politician spellers not already mentioned were Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
All in all, it was a laughter-filled night of comic relief at a time when relations between politicians and the press can be strained.
Preeti Aroon is a copy editor for National Geographic and was formerly copy chief at Foreign Policy. Comma splices and lowercasing “Is” in headlines really annoy her. Please follow her on Twitter: @pjaroonfp.