OXON HILL, Md. — Soft-spoken but brimming with confidence, Dev Shah asked precise questions about obscure Greek roots, rushed through his second-to-last word and rolled to the Scripps National Spelling Bee title Thursday night.
Shah, a 14-year-old from Largo, Florida, had his spelling career interrupted by the pandemic, then didn’t make it out of his regional bee last year. He got through his highly competitive regional this year for a third and final try at the national title, and he ended up holding the trophy over his head as confetti fell.
His winning word was “psammophile,” a layup for a speller of his caliber.
“Psammo meaning sand, Greek?” he asked. “Phile, meaning love, Greek?”
Shah soaked up the moment by asking for the word to be used in a sentence, something he described a day earlier as a stalling tactic. Then he put his hands over his face as he was declared the winner.
Charlotte Walsh, a 14-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, was the runner-up, and she gave Shah a congratulatory hug. Shah, who previously appeared in the bee in 2019 and 2021, was close with many of his fellow finalists.
“They’ve all been in many online bees and many Scripps National Spelling Bees, and I felt like a spark and a camaraderie between all of us,” he said. “I’m very grateful and I’m privileged that I could be in a spelling bee with them one final time.”
Fifteen months ago, it was hardly a sure thing Shah would be back. He had a miserable experience at his regional bee last year, finishing fourth after spelling for five hours in damp, chilly weather at an outdoor soccer stadium in Orlando.
“It took me I would say at least four months to get back on track,” he said. “I just didn’t know if I wanted to keep continuing.”
When the field had been narrowed to just Shah and Walsh, Scripps brought out the buzzer used for its “spell-off” tiebreaker, and Shah was momentarily confused when he stepped to the microphone.
“This is not the spell-off, right?” Shah asked. Told it was not, he spelled “bathypitotmeter” so quickly that it might as well have been, the latest example of his unassuming onstage swagger.
“I practiced for the spell-off every day, I guess. I knew it might happen and I prepared for everything, so I kind of went into spell-off mode,” Shah said. “But I also was scared for the spell-off.”
Shah wins more than $50,000 in cash and prizes and is the 22nd champion in the past 24 years with South Asian heritage. His father, Deval, a software engineer, immigrated to the United States from India 29 years ago to get his master’s degree in electrical engineering. He has since added an MBA from the University of Florida. Dev’s older brother, Neil, is a rising junior at Yale.
Deval said his son showed an incredible recall with words starting at age 3, and Dev spent many years participating in academic competitions staged by the North South Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to children in India.
The bee began in 1925 and is open to students through the eighth grade. Spellers qualify by winning regional competitions around the country. There were 229 kids onstage at the beginning of this year’s national bee — and each was a champion many times over, considering that 11 million participated at the school level.
While the bee is smaller and the field not as deep as in prepandemic years, this year’s finalists demonstrated an impressive depth of knowledge as they worked their way through a sometimes diabolical word list.
The selection proved that the competition can remain entertaining while delving more deeply into the dictionary than in the past — especially in the second spelling round of the finals, when Scripps peppered contestants with short but tough words such as “traik” (to fall ill, used in Scotland), “carey” (a small to medium-size sea turtle) and “katuka” (a venomous snake of southeastern Asia).
With the field down to four, Shradha Rachamreddy was eliminated on “orle,” a heraldry term that means a number of small charges arranged to form a border within the edge of a field. (She went with “orel.”) And “kelep” — a Central American stinging ant — ousted Surya Kapu. (He said “quelep.”)
While sometimes Scripps’ use of trademarks and geographical names can anger spelling traditionalists who want to see kids demonstrate their mastery of roots and language patterns — and even the exceptions to those patterns — Scripps has made clear that, with the exception of words designated as archaic or obsolete, any entry in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged dictionary is fair game.