Wed | Jun 23, 2021

How Jamaica can win at Scripps Spelling Bee

Published:Sunday | June 16, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Darian Douglas of Jamaica participates in the final round of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 30 in Oxon Hill, Maryland. The Gleaner’s Children’s Own’s reigning champion was eliminated.
Minister of Labour and Social Security the Hon Shahine Robinson congratulates Rhonoya Anderson, a PATH beneficiary, on her consistent effort, being a four-time Gleaners’ Children’s Own’s Spelling Bee champion for the parish of Portland.
Hanif Brown

‘Octochamps’ is a word you might want to remember for the future, the name given this year to the eight co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Yes, you read that correctly, eight! That is the amount of spellers who will each be receiving from Scripps a US$40,000 cash prize and the Scripps National Spelling Bee engraved trophy from Merriam-Webster. Each of the eight spellers will also get a US$2,500 United States (US) savings bond, a complete reference library, and a multitude of opportunities for media exposure for the next few weeks. The new cost to reward eight champions has now skyrocketed to well over a quarter-million US dollars, up from a little over US$50,000.

For the first time this year, more than two contestants have won the event. Three hours into the finals, the kids were told that there were only enough words left for three more rounds and that those who made it to the very end would share the title. After they spelled words like ‘cernuous’, ‘bougainvillea’, and ‘aiguillette’, the Bee ended in an eight-way tie. It is clear that the quality of the top-tier contestants at the Scripps National Bee has improved greatly in recent years and Scripps is struggling to keep apace with a new generation of super-spellers.

Between the years 2014 and 2016, the final round ended in a two-way tie after the co-champions exhausted the championship word list. This is a list of 25 of the most challenging words kept in reserve just for the end of the competition. Scripps changed the rules in 2017, instituting a written test that would be used as a final tiebreaker. This year, they announced they were ditching the tiebreaker test, again allowing for co-champions. But the rules contemplated only the possibility of up to three spellers still battling it out at the end, certainly not eight. These spellers, however, beat the dictionary and will potentially be the reason why Scripps will ensure that the rules are changed again to avoid a reoccurrence of this anomaly.

More Jamaicans at Scripps

Darian Douglas from Clarendon was the best-placed Jamaican at the Bee, copping 28th after spelling D-I-A-L-E-G-E instead of D-I-A-L-L-A-G-E. He is the 2019 Gleaner’s Children’s Own Spelling Bee champion. This year’s field of competitors had 565 spellers, in comparison to 2011, when there were 275 contestants. This year, of that 565, four were Jamaicans. The number of contestants at Scripps has drastically increased thanks to a new program called the RSVBee. This allows spellers to qualify even if they haven’t won a regional spelling bee in the US, or in Jamaica’s case, if they haven’t won the Gleaner’s Children’s Own National Spelling Bee like Darian.

Other spellers are able to enter as long as they pay the US$1,500 fee to attend the contest and pay for their own travel and hotel accommodations. This year, 292 contestants came to the nationals that way, including 3 from Jamaica: St Andrew’s Ashleigh Jarrett, St James’ Honey Advani and Portland’s Rhonoya Anderson. Assana Thompson from St Andrew used this method last year to enter the Bee. They did not make it to the finals, but three additional spellers certainly increases the chances for Jamaica, so fingers crossed. In a spelling bee, the unexpected can happen, so the more quality spellers Jamaica has entering, the better our chances are for another win.

Another Jody-Anne Maxwell?

While the late Rev Glen Archer and I both worked assiduously in our respective times to produce another winner, we understood the limitations we had to work with. We both shared the opinion that the previous structures of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the time available for Jamaican spellers to prepare for the championship were major obstacles. From my perspective, the scene has now changed. Assuming there are no sudden changes, the RSVBee will continue to provide an avenue for more than one Jamaican contestant to enter the Bee, just like there were more than one in 1996 and 1997. The RSVBee also potentially allows for a Jamaican to go to the Scripps National Spelling Bee more than once.

The historic occurrence of ‘octochamps’ is right up there in Scripps history with Jody- Anne Maxwell of Ardenne High School winning the Bee in 1998 as the first non-American, and the first winner of African-American descent. While both were Herculean tasks, both were accomplished. Maybe this year’s unbelievable feat will trigger the reoccurrence of another Jamaican winner in the near future. As the Jamaican saying goes, wi likkle, but wi tallawah.


Hanif Brown is the 2011 Gleaner’s Children’s Own Spelling Bee champion, a scholar and a former winning coach with the Beespellers Coaching Programme. He was recently asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to appear on a radio spelling feature with pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Dr Jacques Bailly.