Just minutes into the live coverage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals on Thursday, May 31, 2007, ESPN’s Stuart Scott sets up for a shot near an entrance to the Independence Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Washington. Scott is one of the marquee anchors of the hugely popular SportsCenter, known for his mashed-up play-calling style and his catchphrase “Booyah!” He can usually be found interrogating star athletes, like LeBron James and Tiger Woods. This morning his subject is a thirteen-year-old with a black mop-top and braces.
“Dan Marino: seventeen years, one of the best quarterbacks ever, never won a championship,” Scott says. “Samir Patel right here: This is his fifth spelling bee. One of the best young spellers we’ve ever seen, but you’ve never won. You’ve finished fourteenth, second, third, twenty-seventh. How are you going today to pull off what Marino never could?”
“Well, you know, there’s so much luck involved in the spelling bee,” Samir responds. The kid is stupefyingly professional. He makes eye contact like a debate team captain and doesn’t seem vexed by any of the awkward eccentricities that usually plague great child spellers. Only the bee uniform—a white polo buttoned all the way to the top and a placard hanging around his neck emblazoned with his number, 247, and his sponsor, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram—supplies the requisite notes of nerdy pageantry that most fans associate with the contest.
“You can’t necessarily really say just that I’m the best speller, because there’s so much luck,” Samir says.
“There’s luck and there’s confidence,” Scott replies. “Some of these students, they get up here and they get a little nervous. Confidence will knock a person over if he’s standing next to you.”
Samir doesn’t smile or shrug. Such assessments no longer faze him. Since 2003, he has been at the center of more media attention than any speller in history who’s never actually won the national bee. By age ten, he was already legendary enough to be the subject of an entire chapter in a book about spelling bees. Following the 2003 bee, Samir found fame as a “lifeline” on televised celebrity spelling contests and now has devoted fans worldwide. He has rubbed elbows with politicians, actors, Olympians, and enough notables to fill his book of autographs. Women approach him in supermarkets; bee nuts write about him online, dissecting his record, calculating his proficiency. In the run-up to this year’s bee, one blog posted a photo of Samir picking out his official polo shirt.
Samir’s string of four consecutive high-profile losses is part of what accounts for the interest. Analysts compare him to challenged sports legends and teams who never win the big one, like Michelle Kwan or the Buffalo Bills (God help him). He’s been devastated after every loss, trying desperately to wrap his head around defeat. Floyd Patterson, who used to sneak out of stadiums after losing boxing matches wearing a fake mustache and glasses, once said that anyone can be a good winner. “It’s in defeat,” Patterson observed, “that a man reveals himself.” Samir, of course, is not a man. He is a kid, and every year after hearing the dreaded ding that indicates an incorrect spelling, he has done what all kids do when the world doesn’t make any sense: He has cried a lot.
This year, he is once again the front-runner, and the blogs are all over him. “This is his fifth straight trip, and final one,” said the Bee Blog. “He’ll be too old next year.” (Next year, as a ninth-grader, he’ll be ineligible for the Scripps bee, which is limited to elementary and middle-schoolers.) Deadspin, a sports news site, warned, “Seriously, Samir Patel, if you lose, you’ve wasted your childhood … Last chance, kid: Don’t choke.”
By today, Samir has comfortably made it through the quarterfinals—in which 227 ten- to fifteen-year-old wunderkinder from all corners of the English-speaking world dinged out—by nailing “decor” (ornamentation) in round two, “trumpery” (deceit) in round three, and “sunglo” (a green Chinese tea) in round four. Fifty-nine spellers remain this Thursday as the semifinals begin. Now that the field is smaller, the commentators regale viewers with the contestants’ personal stories: a struggle with a brittle-bone disease, a mother in a coma.
Samir’s chances increase as one chair is left empty, then another, and another. Michael Girbino, a twelve-year-old with brown haired and eyeglasses that slip down his nose, looks wide-eyed and terrified when given the word “retiarius” (a Roman gladiator armed with a net and a trident). The elimination bell dings, and he thanks the judges as if he is grateful to leave the stage. Rebecca Rehberger, a fourteen-year-old from South Dakota who towers over the other spellers, scribbles her word, “siphonogamous” (adjective, “accomplishing fertilization by means of a pollen tube”), on the back of her placard and stares at it like a superhero utilizing her X-ray vision. At the sound of the ding, she looks as if she might crumble into a pile behind the microphone.
Finally, it is Samir’s turn. Rising from his chair, he confidently walks across the stoplight-red carpeting to center stage. He holds his hands together behind his back. He ignores the glare of the lights. He tunes out the cameras and everything buzzing around the stage. Previous experience has taught him that at this moment, he should aspire to be no more than a floating brain and mouth.
He faces the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, who sits at a navy-blue judges panel. The sounds of the word come rolling out of Bailly’s mouth with precise enunciation: “‘ klev-es.’”
Ah, Samir thinks, I know this one.
English is one of the most complicated, untamable languages in recorded human history. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, the official dictionary of the bee, lists more than 476,000 English words. Compare that with roughly 100,000 words in French or 200,000 in German. A mongrel tongue like no other, English began as a wholly Germanic language and then welcomed a massive infusion of French (due,