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Gibberish in Washington keeps them guessing (and spelling)

Defending press champ beats out politicians in this year’s spelling bee

Amy Wang
Amy Wang, a national politics reporter for the Washington Post, won the Press vs. Politicians Spelling Bee at the National Press Club on Wednesday. (Alan Kotok for National Press Club)

In the end it was all gibberish. 

It was the final round of the night at the annual Press vs. Politicians Spelling Bee at the National Press Club, and the suspense was mounting. Whittled down from a field of 10, two spellers remained to try their luck in the “gibberish” category.

Niminy-piminy,” an adjective meaning absurdly nice or extremely delicate, managed to stump Washington Post national political reporter Amy Wang. 

“Niminy-piminy, am I saying that right?” asked the defending champion.

“I can’t really tell,” laughed the event’s pronouncer, Jacques Bailly of Scripps National Spelling Bee fame.

“I mean, does gibberish have a spelling?” Wang wondered aloud, before missing the word and giving her remaining congressional opponent one last shot at victory.

Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. got the word “pampootie,” or a shoe of untanned cowhide. He tried to put a “u” in it, and out rang the most feared sound in spelling — the bell that signals a mistake. It was the Virginia Democrat’s second flub of the night, meaning Wang clinched the win, having correctly spelled “hinalea” (a brilliantly marked convict fish) in a previous round.

The last politician to take home the trophy was New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas, but this year he went out after whiffing on the word “semaphore.” He spelled it like the news agency Semafor — which wasn’t around when Pappas won in 2019.

Wednesday night’s bee, hosted by the press club, came as lawmakers are hurtling toward a government shutdown if they can’t reach a stopgap funding deal by the end of the month. Iowa Rep. Ashley Hinson, the only Republican of the five lawmakers competing, spent the afternoon in a long House GOP Conference meeting and said she had numbers more than letters on her mind. 

Her staff helped her out by putting together a study list of words recently added to the dictionary. And her second word of the competition, “gazette,” was an easy one for her — she once worked for the KCRG TV station, short for Cedar Rapids Gazette.

While Hinson was knocked out fairly early, she said it was a considerable improvement over her most recent spelling bee in the second grade, when she failed to follow the oldest rule of “i” before “e,” except after “c.”

Michigan Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten also had a long day, spending hours in a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing where members grilled Sec. Pete Buttigieg. Rounding out the members’ side was Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, who quipped, “Oh, Italian, so of course I should get it,” after hearing the origin of one of her words. 

Spellers from both camps tried the well-worn stall tactic of asking the pronouncer to use the word in a sentence or give a definition. It was a steady game of attrition. Wall Street Journal justice and judiciary editor James Graff had his run stuffed by spelling “manicotti” incorrectly, and later missing “ecuelle.” 

Other competitors on the press side were New York Times investigative reporter Mark Walker and two Bloomberg editors with connections to this publication: Catalina Camia (former CQ Roll Call editor-in-chief) and Fawn Johnson (spouse of the current editor-in-chief, Jason Dick).

The first such spelling bee was held at the National Press Club in 1913, with then-President Woodrow Wilson in the audience. A century later, the club revived the bee in 2013. (Full disclosure: This reporter is a member of the club.)

Funds raised by the event went to the club’s nonprofit affiliate, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, whose work includes training, scholarships and press freedom efforts.

For Scholten, at least, the night was a chance to laugh off mistakes. Her first missed word was Louisiana’s state capital of Baton Rouge (she added an extra “t”), and the Michigan Democrat was grimacing with glee the whole way.

It was contagious. On the other end, someone from the bee’s officiating panel couldn’t resist a snort, causing the room to erupt in laughter.

“You don’t even have to ring the bell. The snort is enough,” Scholten said.