Jill Biden had it easy. She didn't have to spell a word and no one dismissed her with a bell.
Vice President Joe Biden's wife kicked off the championship rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday evening, offering words of encouragement before the 11 finalists came onstage in the quest for the $40,000 in cash and prizes that goes to the winner.
Biden cited her own nervousness as a speller in a sixth-grade contest and told the audience that "confidence is the most important thing you can give a child."
This year's finalists were all 13 years old, except for one 12-year-old. Otherwise, they were a diverse group, with hometowns from New York to California. One was born in Malaysia. Another can speak Hindi and wore five good-luck charms. Another put on glasses while spelling so he could see the pronouncer's lips. Another is a science fiction buff who apparently does a great impersonation of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings."
The 82nd annual bee attracted a record 293 participants, with the champion determined on network television in prime time for the fourth consecutive year. There was even a new humorous twist: Organizers turned the sentences read by pronouncer Jacques Bailly into jokes.
Asked during the semifinals to use "noisette" -- a type of food -- in a sentence, Bailly replied: "Gail couldn't keep her eyes off the piece of noisette in her date's teeth."
Later, Bailly offered this gem to explain a word that means something that happens once a week: "Stacy told Alex that his dating prospects would improve greatly if he started bathing more than just hebdomadally."
The day began with 41 semifinalists. Five were eliminated in one round, then 20 were wiped out in a round so brutal that officials were getting concerned there wouldn't be enough finalists left for the prime-time special. The round claimed a pair of four-time participants thought to be in the running to win the title: Josephine Kao of Carmichael, Calif., who was stumped by "gastaldo" (a representative of a king), and Keiko Bridwell of Duncan, S.C., who couldn't figure out "thylacine" (a rare dog-like marsupial).
"That was a painful run," said Carolyn Andrews, who was in charge of selecting the words.
For a long time, the loneliest person in the room had to be 13-year-old Ramya Auroprem of San Jose, Calif., who was surrounded by empty chairs as the spellers around her exited the stage in disappointment. She was finally joined in the next semifinal round by 13-year-old Serena Laine-Lobsinger of West Palm Beach, Fla., who put her hand over her mouth in disbelief when she spelled "hircocervus" (a legendary half-goat, half-stag).
"I was just shocked to get to the semifinals," Serena said. "I really it is a pleasant surprise when I get a word right."
How nerve-racking was the round? Thirteen-year-old Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., started spelling "perciatelli," a type of pasta, when she suddenly stopped.
"I'd like to start again," she said. "What was the word?"
Nevertheless, she spelled it correctly, letting out a big "yes" as she pumped her arms.
"I was getting real dizzy," said Neetu, the speller who wears all the good-luck charms. "I didn't want to mess up when I'm getting real close to the finals."
Ramya, Serena and Neetu all advanced to the finals, as did two returning favorites. Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who finished in the top 10 each of the last three years, nailed "ergasia," "kurta" and "escritoire." Last year's runner-up, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was his usual all-business self in his white shirt, blue sweater and tie as he spelled "sobornost," "machtpolitik" and "unakite."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times