The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee brings an all-star cast of spellers from around the world to National Harbor in Fort Washington, Maryland, to compete for the championship title. The grand prize? A whopping $50,000, plus extra cash, souvenirs and an impressive trophy to boot.
For this year’s preliminary rounds, 231 spellers arrived from all 50 states, with some contestants even hailing from Ghana, Guam, Germany and elsewhere abroad. But in the competition’s almost century-old history, only one Marylander has ever brought home the championship title.
This year, seven Marylanders reached the preliminary rounds, but none made it to the finals. Evangelene Hill, 14, carried Maryland the farthest, reaching the semifinals until falling to “leuma” in the sixth round.
Cheyenne Hensley of Middletown reached the preliminary rounds before being bested by the word “nictitate.” To compete “feels incredibly nerve-wracking,” the seventh grader said. “I was a little bit disappointed when I got eliminated yesterday, but I’m proud of myself now that I think about it.”
The 7 words that knocked Maryland kids out of contention
A full list of Maryland contestants, plus the location where they qualified and the word that eliminated them
- PERFECTIBILISM (noun): “Perfectionism” | Navya Dwivedi, 12, Columbia
- PRECISIAN (noun): “A person who stresses or practices scrupulous adherence to a strict standard especially of religious observance or morality” | Lawrence H. Liao, 11, Bethesda
- LEBKUCHEN (noun): “A Christmas cookie usually made with honey, brown sugar, almonds, candied fruit peel, and spices” | Bella Ngoc Van, 12, Annapolis
- TECHNOBABBLE (noun ): “Technical jargon” | Ayesha Syed, 14, Baltimore
- NICTITATE (verb): “Wink” | Cheyenne Dawn Hensley, 13, Frederick
- KERRIL (noun): “A sea snake (Kerilia jerdoni) of the Asiatic coast from the Persian gulf to Japan” | Alec Gallahan, 14, La Plata
- LEUMA (noun): “Shipping fever” | Evangelene Suzanne Kennedy Hill, 14, Princess Anne
Hensley is happy people from all over the world came to Maryland for the competition. “I feel like Maryland is a state that often gets swept under the rug, so when something like this happens here, it’s really cool,” she said.
Contestants and parents alike felt the anxieties in the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, where the competition is hosted. “It’s been incredibly nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time,” said Michigan resident Dan Mervak, whose daughter Clara is competing. “I just hope she enjoys herself and the company of the other kids.”
“To be somewhere that I’ve seen on TV so many times, it felt surreal,” said 13-year-old Pittsburgh resident Raana Parchuri, who got stuck on the word “naperer.”
Whenever her son steps up to the mic, “I have to choke back tears,” Jill Boyce of West Virginia said. “For all the kids to make it this far is an honor, and hopefully they will make connections that last the rest of their lives.” If her son, Isaac, wins, Boyce made a deal: Most of the prize money will go to his college savings, but he will also get to buy a Gibson Les Paul guitar he’s been eyeing.
To reach that grand prize, spellers will have to surmount an avalanche of words from the most obscure corners of the dictionary. Huke, baize, eidos, izar, rachis and plethysmograph are just a few examples from the quarterfinals.
Even with the nerves, contestants emphasize that they’re here for the fun of it. “I’m really proud of how far I got,” said Navya Dwivedi of Columbia, Maryland. She successfully spelled “inchoate” and “nuncupative” but was eliminated after misplacing a letter in “perfectibilism” in the quarterfinals.
Dwivedi enjoys how many new peers she’s gotten to meet at this event and will be trying her luck again next year. “When you’re spelling, make sure to have fun,” she said.
Ayesha Syed, 14, of Windsor Mill was the only contestant from the Baltimore area.
“It’s more than a competition,” she said. “We get to meet a lot of new people, do a lot of activities. It’s quite exhilarating.” She successfully spelled “inglenook” but later faltered on “technobabble” and was eliminated.
“The spelling community in Baltimore is quite small,” Syed said. “There’s not a lot of opportunities, so making it this far was a big surprise to a lot of people.” Syed began spelling less than a year ago and quickly launched to the nationals, while many of her peers took years to reach that level. “Sitting onstage and watching other people is definitely a lot scarier than actually going up and talking in the mic,” she said.
Syed’s advice to other kids interested in spelling: Make sure you balance your priorities. Don’t miss out on personal relationships, school or other things that are important to you in the pursuit of linguistic glory, she said.
Texas has produced 16 Scripps National Spelling Bee champions, the most of any state. Maryland, meanwhile, has produced only Saketh Sundar of Columbia, who was one of eight victors in an unusually large tie in 2019, known as the “octochamps.” The competition effectively ran out of words to throw at the spelling experts, and the outcome spurred Scripps to institute a rapid-fire “spell-off” in future years to avoid similar outcomes if competitions go on too long.
The competition is limited to those in eighth grade and below, but some are younger, with the youngest being in third grade.
Eugenia Tachie-Menson, a Washington, D.C., native, is a sponsor who brings spellers from Ghana to the competition. She happened upon the Scripps National Spelling Bee while watching TV in the United Kingdom as a student and decided to combine her passions of reading and working with children to create the organization Young Educators Foundation and work directly with Scripps.
“Anxiety is the overriding feeling” when watching a Ghanaian speller onstage, Tachie-Menson said, because she worries for the mental health of the contestants who may be experiencing culture shock while visiting the U.S.