This week, one of the most brutal competitions known to man begins. It's time for the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Dreams will be broken, kids will be crushed, and when these competitors strike out, the words that tripped them up will be burned into their brains for the rest of their lives.
When the dust settles, one speller out of 285 will rise and be crowned the best-spelling kid in the nation. From the favorites to the underdogs to some of the Bee's most notable moments, here's your guide to this year's competition.
What you're not seeing on television
The kids you're seeing Wednesday and Thursday aren't the only kids in the Bee. Many of the Bee's 285 spellers, who have already accomplished a lot in beating out the smart kids in their schools and districts, are cut and culled in what's known as the "preliminaries," which actually began Tuesday.
The "preliminaries" consist of both onstage spelling and a computer test with 26 multiple-choice questions, split into four sections. The first section is about vocabulary and the second about spelling; each has 12 questions worth one point. After that, there are two unique multiple-choice vocabulary questions worth three points each.
There are also two preliminary rounds of onstage spelling. There, a correct word is worth three points — and an incorrect word means a speller is eliminated.
After the preliminary section wraps up, the 50 spellers with the most points advance to the semifinals, where they complete another multiple-choice test Wednesday evening and onstage spelling during the day Thursday.
The 12 spellers who come out of the semifinals with the highest scores advance to the championship finals (which air in primetime on ESPN).
What spellers are asking
After spellers get through that gauntlet of tests and waiting, they move on to the glory that is the Championship Finals — an oral spell-off where, by the luck of the draw, spellers can get a cupcake or a word that might send them to their doom.
This, of course, is what we'll see on Thursday night's broadcast. Like any sport, the actual action — in this case, the spelling — is just a small portion of the broadcast. The rest of the time is largely taken up by spellers asking for clues.
Spellers are allowed to ask for: 1) alternate pronunciations, 2) a definition, 3) a part of speech, 4) language of origin, 5) for the word to be used in a sentence, and 6) for the word to be pronounced again. They're also allowed to ask if the root word is in the dictionary, so long as they can pronounce that root word correctly, define it, and identify its language of origin.
The answers provide valuable hints, allowing contestants to, for example, rule out homonyms, identify potential spelling patterns based on the language or origin, or use the definition to guess potential roots and glean likely spellings from there.
Spellers have two minutes, starting when the pronouncer finishes saying the word, to ask any or all of these questions and spell out the correct word.
How the words are chosen
The words all come from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. That's the final authority. Figuring out whether "schizaffin" is tougher than "isagoge" is up to a panel of Bee officials, who rate each word on a scale of 1 to 5 during organizational meetings, NPR reported in 2005.
But difficulty is, of course, relative. Someone who loves Latin is going to prefer different words than a speller who studies French. Here is a list of misspelled words from the 2013 Bee, and here's a list of the winning words dating all the way back to 1925.
How spellers are eliminated
Obviously, spelling. Any misspelling will earn that dreaded ding from the judges. And spellers will need to be on their game. The excuse of not hearing the word correctly doesn't cut it at the Bee. "It is sometimes impossible to detect a misunderstanding until a spelling error has been made, and the judges are not responsible for the speller’s misunderstanding," the rule book states.
If you dig deeper into the rules, spellers can also be eliminated for "unsportsmanlike conduct" or if they fail to approach the microphone. But perhaps the most pertinent rule, and one that comes up more often than unsportsmanlike conduct or muttering things into a microphone, is that once spellers start a word, they can't change the sequence of the letters they spelled.
We learned from Akshay Buddiga in 2004 that you cannot be eliminated for fainting during the Bee:
Nor will you get eliminated for doing a Napoleon Dynamite impersonation:
If you want a deep cut or like musicals, the rules were perfectly encapsulated by the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee:
Whom to keep your eye on:
The year's competition will be intense. There's a mix of returning vets, three siblings of previous winners, and even a first-grade student who will make for some good television. Here are the students we will be keeping an eye on:
The favorite: Tejas Muthusamy, a.k.a. Speller Number 259, knows the Spelling Bee. He took eighth place in 2014 and seventh in 2015. Tejas arguably has some of the most diverse interests of any Spelling Bee contestant or middle school student. He is arguably a better-rounded person than you. His biography, for example, includes these excellent sentences:
Tejas is a fan of the band Twenty One Pilots, but he's equally likely to rock out to songs like "Uma Thurman" by Fall Out Boy. Another hobby of his is reading, and his book of choice is Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Tejas enjoys both journalism and politics, and he is happiest when at the juncture of the two.
Tejas is in eighth grade, which means this is the last year he can compete in the Bee. Now or never, Tejas.
The dark horse: Snehaa Ganesh Kumar is the contestant Tejas needs to keep an eye on. She tied for fourth in 2015, after misspelling the word "oflag" (a word that describes a war prison for officers — obviously — she spelled it "auflahg.")
Snehaa is relatively new to the national spelling circuit; last year was her debut at the Scripps Bee. (There are other competitors in 2016 who will be making their fourth consecutive appearance.) This year we'll learn whether Snehaa's success was a one-time fluke or if the middle school student from Sacramento has staying power.
The Dynasty: Jairam Hathwar comes from a winning bloodline. His brother, Sriram Hathwar, was the co-champion in 2014. This isn't Jairam's first rodeo — he placed 22nd in last year's Spelling Bee. He'll have to improve his standing this year to do the Hathwar name proud.
The baby: Akash Vukoti is the only first-grade student in the competition. He is basically a zygote with a dictionary. He can probably spell better than you. His favorite word is one you have literally never heard of.
Ready for it? Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Yes, it's real. No, Akash is not kidding. We made a video about him, which you can watch below.
How do I watch the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee?
The finals are on ESPN on Thursday at 8 pm EDT/7 Central.
The semifinals will be shown on ESPN2 on Thursday at 10 am EDT.
The preliminaries will be shown on ESPN3 on Wednesday at 8 am EDT and 1:15 pm EDT.
Another way to keep up with the Bee is through social media. You can find the Instagram feed here.