During the Scripps National Spelling Bee, your eyes are probably glued to a single microphone: the one on stage, which students grip each year as though their lives depended on it.
But behind another mic, just a few feet away, sits a man who’s been at every Scripps bee since 1991: the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, who won the bee himself in 1980. But his job is much more than reading a list of words. He’s something of an icon among the students. “A lot of spellers want my autograph, which is the best fan club you can imagine,” he says.
Below, Bailly divulges how the words are chosen (well, kinda — a lot of “what happens in word club stays in word club”); how those used-in-context sentences are crafted (sometimes, Scripps hires comedy writers to write funny ones); and the most evil word he’s ever faced.
Even though it’s not a full-time gig, the job requires year-round work. “It’s basically a joy,” Bailly says. “They did start paying me for it a while ago, but I’d do it even without pay.”
Based in: Burlington, Vermont
Graduated from: Brown University, where I majored in classics. Then I went to school in Switzerland to study Greek and Latin, and got my Ph.D. from Cornell.
Years in the business: I’ve been an official pronouncer since 2003, but started working for Scripps as an associate pronouncer in 1991.
Previous jobs: I taught Latin and Greek at Colby College after grad school. Then I moved to University of Vermont to be a visiting lecturer, and I’m now an associate professor there.
So pronouncing words in the spelling bee once a year isn’t a full-time job. It’s not my day job. I won the National Spelling Bee in 1980 and was passionate about [spelling bees], so I helped with some local bees in Denver. In 1990, I wrote to Scripps and asked about volunteering. I lucked out, because just at that moment, they were looking to replace someone who was moving on.
Is the associate pronouncer essentially like a stunt double? They’re the backup if the pronouncer can’t do the job. The associate’s role is essentially fact-checking and doing lots of stuff behind the scenes. The associate pronouncer right now used to be a pronunciation editor for Merriam-Webster, so he knows the history of the symbols we use.
What the job entails: There’s a year-round schedule. After the bee at the end of May, there’s a one- or two-week break, if that. Then we start planning for the next one, since there are lots of logistical arrangements — creating word lists, study guides and contest lists. There’s a big team for the word list, about 10 of us, that meets over the summer. In the fall, I go to a meeting where we talk about words for two or three days, and there’s one more meeting in the spring before the bee. We make sure we’ve thought about the words from different angles and have chosen definitions that are not obsolete.
Does that team also write the “in context” sentences? Yes, but writing a sentence to match the definition isn’t always easy, as some words are really strange. We also include etymological information about the origin and the Merriam-Webster pronunciation symbols.
The process for choosing words and crafting sentences: What happens in word club stays in word club.
There must be something you can reveal. We get [the words] anywhere from looking through the dictionary, to reading a novel that mentions a 17th-century piece of furniture, to reading a science magazine. We might look at reports about a disease that’s prevalent in some part of the world and decide to include the name of that disease. We have to make sure it’s included in Merriam-Webster, though.
We prepare one serious sentence to show how the word is actually used, and one comedic sentence. We’ve hired comedy writers who come up with funny ones, and once in a while, the people at Scripps do, too. I’m not very funny, but I get to deliver all these sentences in a deadpan, so it’s kind of amusing to me that people think I’m funny.
What sorts of words might get rejected from the list? Is the vetting process cutthroat? Whoever comes up with a word presents it at a meeting, and it might get turned down for various reasons. Certain sounds are too titillating, or just aren’t appropriate for that age.
Does the job require a lot of practice ahead of each bee? At the meetings, and in the days before the bee, I sit around and pronounce words a lot, but I don’t really practice other than that. Or I’ll do it in my office at the University of Vermont. My associate shows me how to shape my mouth or where to put my tongue to pronounce things in a certain way. During the bee, before I speak each word into the mic, I usually say it to myself quietly or think it through.
A year’s worth of preparation gets jammed into one or two days. Is that grueling or exhilarating? The day of the bee is a very long day for me. The spellers are divided into two groups — a few rounds in the morning and a couple in the evening. That can be a 12-hour day in the spotlight. The day of the finals, when the winner is declared, is a bit more relaxed; it’s scheduled with ESPN and there’s a pretty big break in the afternoon.
I’ll tell you what’s really grueling. One time, about 16 years ago, we decided to have a parents’ bee. We thought it would be fun and lighthearted, but parents took it very seriously and I was there [pronouncing words] past midnight.
Number of words on the list in any given year: Thousands. There’s no specific length; we go by difficulty levels. In one round, we might have 20 to 60 students, and need enough words for each student to get two. So we put in 125, which includes a few spares. That doesn’t mean all those words get used.
How you keep the list away from prying eyes: Digitally, the Scripps corporate IT staff takes care of security. We do have a backup printed list right next door [to where the bee takes place in Washington, D.C.], under lock and key, which can be brought out if there’s a glitch in the computer system. I don’t think we’ve ever needed to do that. Nowadays, it’s rare that the words appear on paper — and if they are, they go right to the shredder afterward.
Do you have any techniques to quell students’ nervousness or to pump them up? I try to make eye contact or say hello when a speller gets up to the mic. People think kids are really nervous about being on TV, but they’re not. They’re energized by it. A lot of spellers want my autograph, which is the best fan club you can imagine.
Most ridiculous request from a speller at the mic: They ask “can I buy a vowel,” or they’ll ask me how to spell the word. They’ll ask me what the word rhymes with, or ask me to say it in French. Or they’ll purposefully mispronounce a word after I pronounce it, like “id·i·o·syn·CRA·sy.”
A word that has truly surprised you:Geeldikkop, a disease of sheep in South Africa. If you know Afrikaans, it’s easy to spell, but I think it’s an evil word. At the end of the bee, there are words that not even the adults know — words that might make you wonder if they’re English. But spellers relish the challenge. They’re at the top of their game.
You won the bee in 1980, but do you think you could do it again today? I don’t think I could. Back when I won, I studied very hard, but I look at the level of preparation that goes into it today and the study materials. The game has been raised.
Best part of your job: Having a front-row seat and trying to help the kids. They’re so eager, so inspiring with such a variety of backgrounds. Having these kids spell different words opens their minds to different worlds.
Most challenging part of your job: When someone misses, or if something isn’t going right on stage and we’re live. If I have the mic, I need to figure out how to do something smooth that draws attention to the right things. Luckily, I don’t get involved in trying to explain when spellers are upset after a misspelling — that’s the job of the judges.
What people would be surprised to learn about your job: That I don’t know what all these words mean.
You’ll never forget that time a kid… named Kennyi got the word sardoodledom, which means lackluster writing. He couldn’t stop giggling after I said the word, he couldn’t contain himself. Then he spelled the word and got it right. It was a wonderful moment.
Another kid got the word numnah, which is a saddle blanket. He gasped: “numnuts?” The audience exploded in laughter, and I knew I had to help this kid. I said, “No, listen to me carefully.” Then he spelled the word correctly.
What you wear to the bee: I’ve acquired a collection of four or five ties with bees on them, which I wear at the bee every year. That’s the only time I wear a suit and tie anymore. At the bee’s banquet, I wear a vest with a bee on it, which people look forward to.
Languages you speak: I’m pretty fluent in French and pretty good at German. I teach Latin and Greek, which make you realize how little you know of any language. I took a year of Chinese and I loved it, and I’ve taken Arabic a few times, but never mastered it. A background in those languages puts the pronouncer is in a unique place to help. For example, you can make it clear that the word went through Greek.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Anyone who can read English and the pronunciation symbols can be good at this. You need to be a clear English speaker, but you should also enjoy it.
2. Volunteer in your community to help out or be a judge. There are a lot of spelling bees out there — ones for charity, ones at senior centers. Then there are the 275 or so local bees that qualify people for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
3. Knowing French, Greek and Latin really help. I joke that French is rotten Latin; it has its own set of rules that are so difficult to predict in terms of spelling. French is why we have a spelling bee.
All photos courtesy of Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee.