WASHINGTON – Fifth grader Ronnie Cowsert of Florida looked a little heartsick Wednesday after he misspelled the word for liver disease.
And sixth grader Marlee Labroo of Quincy, Ill., gave the spelling bee judge a sad smile when he corrected her stab at "hartebeest," a type of antelope.
Labroo and Cowsert of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., who faltered on "cirrhosis," were among 273 of the country's best young spellers — competing for the biggest prize ever — at the 78th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee (search) running Wednesday and Thursday.
Victoria Stanley of Summitville, Ind., expressed the feeling of many when she heard her word — "sciamachy," meaning futile combat.
"Excuse me?" the fourth grader said, drawing laughter from the audience. After the official repeated it, she spelled it wrong.
And just about everybody but Megan Courtney of Windsor, Mo., laughed as the mere sound of the word she drew, then again when they heard its definition. It was "trichotillomania," the abnormal desire to pull one's hair out.
She misspelled it, but got an extra long round of applause from the several hundred friends and family members of contestants who made up the audience in a downtown hotel.
Though some contestants stumbled in the first oral round, a point system including scores from a written test earlier Wednesday was to determine whether they would be eliminated later in the day or go to the next round.
After asking for the definition and to hear his word used in a sentence, seventh grader Matthew Giese of Mason, Ohio, correctly spelled "kakemono," a picture painted on silk, suitable for hanging.
Having his word repeated and learning its Mexican-Spanish origins seemed to help fifth grader Aaron Sulick of Phillipsburg, N.J., to correctly spell "jicama." It's a tall-climbing Mexican vine.
Despite the pressure of competition, many were taking the day in stride.
"It would be nice to win," 13-year-old Tyler Curtis from Camden, Tenn., said Tuesday. "But I'm not going to get all stressed out over it."
The competitors included 146 boys and 127 girls ages 9 to 14, mostly from around the country and U.S. territories. There are more than a dozen foreign students from as close as Canada and as far away as New Zealand.
The contestants face oral quizzing from a list of some 950 specially chosen words.
Each speller wins at least $50, and the first-place winner gets $28,000 in cash, scholarships and bonds, plus a set of encyclopedias and other books from Encyclopedia Britannica. That's some $10,000 more than in previous years because of the addition of a cash award and a scholarship for 2005.
The contest is administered by E.W. Scripps Co. (search), and the youngsters have all won local contests sponsored by Scripps papers or other individual newspapers. It was started in 1925 by the Louisville Courier-Journal with nine contestants and was suspended only during the World War II years of 1943-1945.
Over the years, the contest has produced its share of joy, queasy stomachs and tears. But if contestants were nervous ahead of the competition, they weren't admitting it Tuesday.
"I came here for the fun," said Little, who made the trip a family vacation and was touring Washington with her parents and grandparents, her 10-year-old brother, Blake, and friend Molly Neary.