They spelled dog breeds, cheeses, words derived from literary characters, words whose definitions include colors (who knew “sphinx” and “antelope” were colors?), commonly misspelled words (including “misspell”), and a couple other more amorphous categories.
Then, with the field of 11 competitors at the Press vs. Politicians Spelling Bee down to just one contender from each team on Wednesday night, announcer Jacques Bailly reached for the “NSFSB” words.
Those are words deemed by the organizers of the ESPN-televised Scripps National Spelling Bee — which helps the National Press Club put its version together — as “not safe for the spelling bee.” Not safe because, well, they sound like other words that might make the preadolescent wunderkinds in the national competition, and more than a few grown-ups, giggle.
Washington Post national political writer Amy Wang went first, acing “fartlek,” a type of endurance training for runners. New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas, the defending champion in the press club bee, followed by correctly spelling “haboob,” a type of dust or sandstorm.
Wang then stumbled on “shittah,” incorrectly using a “c” to start spelling the tree from which the ark and fittings of the Hebrew tabernacle were made.
It was Wang’s first mistake, and the bee gave every contestant two — or four in the case of Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, because Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean wasn’t able to make her anticipated appearance. With lopsided teams, organizers decided the first politician eliminated would get a sort of reincarnation — Davis called it a recount — to keep the teams even.
Pappas came into the NSFSB round with one strike already, having earlier added an “a” before the final “e” in “anemone.” Then, after Wang got her first strike, Pappas was knocked out on “whangdoodle,” leaving out the “h” in the word that means either poppycock or “an imaginary creature of undefined character,” according to Merriam-Webster, the bee-approved dictionary.
Pappas took it well, perhaps because the night before the embattled Democrat learned his opponent in November won’t be the one GOP super PACs spent millions to help in the New Hampshire primary. He certainly wasn’t calling the competition rigged, even though there had been two rounds of spelling dog names and Wang’s past assignments included covering the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Other lawmakers in the competition were Democratic Reps. Don Beyer of Virginia, Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and Jared Huffman of California. The press team also included Farnoush Amiri of The Associated Press, Ramtin Arablouei of NPR, John M. Donnelly of CQ Roll Call, Eric Geller of Politico and Martine Powers of The Washington Post.
Going into Wednesday’s competition, the press and politician teams had been split, 3-3, since 2013, when the spelling bee was revived. It was first held at the club when Woodrow Wilson was president.
The organization has been trying to make the bee an annual event, said club president Jen Judson, but missed the last couple years because of the COVID-19 shutdown and then the complications of trying to do a virtual event in which no one could cheat.
(Full disclosure: This author is a member of the press club’s board of governors.)
There was grumbling in the audience about some spellings that tripped competitors up, such as when Arablouei spelled out “okiedoke.” Bailly conceded, “That’s how I spell it, but the dictionary says o-k-e-y d-o-k-e.”
Overall, however, the competition was marked by more laughs than the national bee often is, largely because of Bailly’s amusing “use it in a sentence” answers and possibly because the press club bars were staffed for the evening.
Perhaps there was foreshadowing in the first word, which went to Donnelly: “chillax.”