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Clearfield leads press to win over politicians in National Press Club Spelling Bee

A silent ‘g’ and some waterzooi help seal the deal

Journalist Alex Clearfield was the last speller standing at Thursday night’s National Press Club event.
Journalist Alex Clearfield was the last speller standing at Thursday night’s National Press Club event. (Mark Schoeff Jr./CQ Roll Call)

Alex Clearfield spelled a word he’d never before heard — “gnathic” — to lead a team of journalists to victory over a squad of lawmakers Thursday night in the Press vs. Politicians National Press Club Spelling Bee.   

The meaning of the word — of or relating to the jaw — gave Clearfield a clue about how to put it together.

“I figured that it had a silent ‘g’ because the word ‘gnaw’ has a silent ‘g,’ and that has to do with the jaw,” said Clearfield, a former CQ Roll Call reporter who is now deputy team leader for state litigation at Bloomberg Law. “It seemed like a word that would have a silent ‘g’ out of nowhere. I don’t think they’d give something that easy at the end if it was just n-a-t-h-i-c.”

Clearfield and Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., D-Va., were the final two contestants competing to win the bee. Their media and politician teammates had dropped out after missing two words.

Beyer, a former champion, also had to tackle words that were new to him to advance to the final round. One of his biggest challenges of the evening was “uliginous,” which means growing in wet or swampy ground.

“It’s the first I’ve heard of that word,” Beyer said, before spelling it correctly.

Beyer was part of the politicians’ team, which also included Reps. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., Chris Pappas, D-N.H., and Hillary Scholten, D-Mich. Rep. Eric Sorensen, D-Ill., was also supposed to compete but had to drop out due to illness.

In addition to Clearfield, the press team consisted of Azi Paybarah from the Washington Post; Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak from ProPublica; Jessica Mendoza from the Wall Street Journal; Ben Nuckols from the Associated Press; and Emily Wilkins from CNBC, who also is the president of the National Press Club.

The club’s spelling bee started in 1913 with a contest that President Woodrow Wilson attended. The tradition was revived in 2013 by the young members team at the club.

The event, which was organized with the help of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, serves as a fundraiser for the NPC Journalism Institute, the nonprofit arm of the club that provides training and scholarships and engages in press freedom efforts.

Bee contestants showed off their spelling skills — or lack of them — in front of an audience of about 250 in the club’s ballroom. One of the judges was the winner of this year’s Scripps bee, Bruhat Soma. 

One reason this year’s bee will be remembered is because it occurred on the same night as the first presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. It was imperative to wrap up the contest before the rivals duked it out.   

“Gnathic” wasn’t the only unusual word that confronted Clearfield. He also had to come up with the spelling of “waterzooi,” a stew from Belgium.

When he was given “waterzooi” by the judges, Clearfield deadpanned, “Really?” He drew laughter and applause from the crowd and then found his footing to correctly spell it.

But, in this case, he was familiar with the word.

“This is going to sound very nerdy, but I watch a lot of videos on YouTube about Scrabble, and I watched one fairly recently about a game where someone played waterzooi, and it just stuck in my brain,” said Clearfield, who had his own cheering section that waved homemade signs.  

This was the second bee in which Clearfield has participated and the second one he has won. He also prevailed in a bee when he attended Voorhees Middle School in New Jersey.

“It never occurred to me that I’d be in another bee in my life,” Clearfield said. “And then, a couple months ago, I was invited to participate here. I’m like, you know what, I’m good at spelling. I do words for a living. I’m an editor. How hard can it be? And the answer is kind of hard.”

Full disclosure: This author was neutral on whether press or politicians won the bee, but he’s a big supporter of the club because he is the organization’s membership secretary. 

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