WASHINGTON – The start of the 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee on Wednesday resembled a classroom of students taking the SAT as 286 youngsters from the English-speaking world filled in ovals with their No. 2 pencils.
Along with the 25-word, multiple-choice spelling test, they were also given their only guaranteed moment on the Grand Hyatt's ballroom stage: a chance to spell one word before an audience of parents, friends and judges.
"Macaroni -- what does it mean?" asked 14-year-old Michael Yeh of Kokomo, Ind., exercising his right to ask for a definition before correctly spelling the popular kids' food often served with cheese.
The multiple choice test (worth 25 points) and the preliminary oral round (worth three points) served to narrow the field to 107 spellers, who advanced to the quarterfinals Wednesday afternoon. The semifinals and finals take place Thursday, with the champion crowned in prime time on ABC for the second consecutive year.
The winner receives $35,000 cash, a $5,000 scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond and a complete set of reference works.
The oral round was hardly taxing for the top spellers. Thirteen-year-old Samir Patel of Colleyville, Texas, back for his fifth national bee and considered one of the favorites to win, breezed through "decor" without a hitch. Tia Thomas, 12, of Coarsegold, Calif., back for her fourth national bee, correctly spelled "flagrant." Both advanced to the quarterfinals.
"Having come for five years, I'm a lot more prepared than I was the first year," said Samir, who has finished third, 27th, second and 14th. "I'm not as nervous, and I already know sort of the routine, so I'm not so much worried about 'Am I going to be there on time?' 'Am I going to make a mistake in walking down the stage?"'
Aishwarya Pastapur of Overland Park, Kan., made her feelings known by wearing a T-shirt with the words "mishpelt werds eeritate me." She displayed no irritation whatsoever by correctly spelling "enumerated" and advanced to the quarterfinals.
Kate Weir, 13, of Christchurch, New Zealand, traveled far to participate, and she must have felt the wait was even longer when she was kept at the microphone while the judges conferred over her Kiwi-accented spelling of "eeriness." Her spelling was eventually replayed over the loudspeakers before it was declared correct.
The audience laughed when pronouncer Jacques Bailly defined "ninety" as "being one more than 89" for 13-year-old Mary Harrington of Vineyard Haven, Mass. She spelled the word correctly but didn't score well enough on the multiple choice test to advance.
There were a few flubs. Ten-year-old Seher Sethi of Rhinebeck, N.Y., let out a sigh after misspelling "pallbearer." Christian Wilks, 10, of Freeport, Ill., tried to put an "a" and an extra "l" in "felony."
During the breaks, the ballroom was vibrant with spellers who have become fast friends during their short time in Washington -- and some who have formed a camaraderie over the years. Matthew Evans, a 12-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., who is also appearing for the fourth time, excitedly compared notes with Tia following the multiple choice test. Matthew said he got 24 correct.
"My favorite word was actually word No. 25!" Matthew exclaimed.
And what is that word?
"Bewusstseinslage," he said, defining it as state of consciousness and pronounced bay-VOOHST-sines-lahg-eh.
And why is it his favorite word?
"Just because it's so weird sounding."