The audience was spellbound
`Numbnut?' asked the winner of US spelling bee, which left TV viewers speechless with mirth
Attempts to make Britons focus on spelling have failed. Apart from Hard Spell, a short-lived TV series hosted by Eamonn Holmes, the "spelling bee" has remained a peculiarly American institution.
So it was this week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC. Thousands of eight- to 15-year-olds entered, many having been coached by competitive parents. The only `European' among 288 finalists was Jordan Lay, 13, from a school in Germany for the children of US military personnel.
Like the other contenders from outside the US, he did not last long. The last international survivor, Sade Dunbar, 12, from Jamaica, made it to the final 16 before fluffing "hidradenitis" (a skin disease).
Those who have seen Spellbound, the documentary about spelling bee contestants, will know the rabbit-in-the-headlights stare of those faced with a tricky word.
The tension was palpable in the finals as the children slowly and clearly spelt out their final words - "huapango" (a Mexican music style), "sheitel" (a Jewish wig), "opificer" (a creator) - then held their breath for the dreaded electronic buzzer that signalled their failure.
But the tension was broken by Sameer Mishra, a wisecracking 13-year-old from Lafayette, Indiana. Coached by his older sister, who made it through to the finals three times, Sameer read 23 pages of the dictionary a day in training, but had retained his sense of humour.
When told that one of his words in the semi-finals was a type of dessert, he said, straight-faced: "That sounds good right now." And when told that one of his words had five language roots, he rolled his eyes and said dryly: "Wonderful."
But his moment of glory came when he - and the viewing public - misheard "numnah". He blinked through his glasses and asked, incredulously, "Numbnut?"
The quizmaster explained that numnah was a Hindi word for a felt or sheepskin saddle blanket. "That's a relief," said Sameer. And spelt it flawlessly. When his last opponent, Sidharth Chand, 12, from Michigan, missed the "i" from "prosopopoeia" (meaning personification), $40,000 (pound;20,400) in prizes was within Sameer's grasp.
He stepped up to the microphone and spelt, without displaying any self- doubt, "guerdon" - which means, appropriately, "reward". The bell dinged and he raised his arms in the air.
There is no comparable event in the UK. As in previous years, the main British presence was outside the competition. Britain's Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council hold an annual demonstration calling for the simplification of English language spelling.
Masha Bell, the Spelling Society's literacy adviser, will tell a conference in Coventry tomorrow that there are 800 common English words that make it difficult for four out of five English children to learn how to spell. "It is because of them that most children only learn to read with a great deal of individual help," she told The TES.