Voice of spelling bee and former national champion avoids the limelight; focuses on the words

WASHINGTON (AP) — The only hard copy of the official Scripps National Spelling Bee word list is under lock and key somewhere inside the Grand Hyatt Washington, and even Jacques Bailly, the bee's official pronouncer, is unsure of its exact location.

Bailly, known affectionately by this year's 273 spellers as Dr. Bailly (pronounced BAY-lee), isn't worried. He has been studying the list for months. He has practiced difficult pronunciations, researched etymologies and helped craft context sentences — some funny, some not — for this week's national competition. He is ready.

So, too, is the Hyatt's Independence Ballroom, where spellers will compete on Thursday and Friday. Bailly, dressed in red shorts, a collared short-sleeve paisley shirt and a pair of white socks stitched with green chameleons, strolled through the hotel on Wednesday morning. From a nearby room, spellers quietly trickled out after completing round one of the preliminary competition, which will help determine whether they participate in Friday's televised semifinals.

It's a familiar scene for Bailly, 44, a tenured classics professor at the University of Vermont. This will be his eighth year as the official pronouncer. In his slow and sure voice, one by one, he will read selected words from the official list. At the request of the spellers, he will also offer the word's country of origin and its definition, and will use it in a sentence. He is the voice of the bee.

"I love watching this," he said of the bee. "They're up there spelling words that most adults don't know and can't define. It's a real celebration of the English language."

Bailly traces his love of words to an introduction to etymology by his fifth grade Catholic school teacher in the late 1970s. By sixth grade, another teacher urged him to join the school's spelling team and by eighth grade, at 13, Bailly won the local spelling bee, qualifying him to compete in the national bee in Washington. In 1980, he became the national champion by correctly spelling "elucubrate," a word with Latin origins that means to study at night.

He went on to study classics at Brown and Cornell and, twenty years ago, approached the directors of the Scripps bee about working for the organization. He served as the associate pronouncer for 12 years, helping develop the word list for national bees and assisting the head pronouncer as necessary. In 2003, when the previous official pronouncer died, Bailly took over.

Bailly speaks clearly and slowly to the spellers, and says his job is not about entertaining the audience.

"I have a very focused thing to do and they are relying on me to do it," he said. "It's important to keep the focus on the spellers ... It really shouldn't be about me. It would be like putting the focus on the referee."

But, like it or not, he is something of a celebrity, at least inside the Grand Hyatt this week. Parents of spellers stop him to say hello in the lobby; hundreds of spellers will ask for his autograph by Friday.

"You would think he was a rock star and had that kind of personality, but he is unassuming and quiet," said Mark Usher, Bailly's colleague and chair of the classics department at the University of Vermont. "He's a quintessential nerd, all in a good way. He's very careful about words and how they work in a sentence, but he's very messy. His office is a wreck."

Leslyn Hall, Bailly's wife, said she can only recall one time when someone recognized him on the street. He may be the official voice of the spelling bee in Washington — he even played himself in "Akeelah and the Bee," the 2006 movie about the contest — but in Burlington, he is not famous, she said.

"He's always very humble when people realize that he does this," Hall said.

Humility isn't a requirement for a Scripps Spelling Bee pronouncer, but knowledge of words and etymology certainly is, said bee director Paige Kimble, the 1981 national champion. She lost to Bailly in 1980.

"He has to have a complete mastery of diacritical markings," Kimble said, referring to the symbols used to indicate a word's correct pronunciation. Bailly, also an amateur woodworker and the proud owner of an extensive crazy sock collection, is a perfect fit, she said.

The annual national competition is by far Bailly's busiest bee-related week. He said his job as pronouncer only requires an odd hour here and there during the academic year, as he helps refine and research the word list.

Bailly's daughter, Isidora, 8, recently expressed an interest in spelling, he said, but can't compete because of her dad's bee affiliation. His son, Jean-Pierre, 6, is primarily consumed with playing a Star Wars video game on his Nintendo Wii.

Though he does not pick favorites and said he often fails to remember which spellers win, there is at least one former spelling bee competitor who hopes to follow in Bailly's footsteps. New Mexico resident Matthew Evans, 15, a repeat speller who last competed in 2008, plans to act as pronouncer for several local New Mexico bees this year.

"I want to replace Dr. Bailly, but I don't think he's going anywhere," Evans said.