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Adults under a spell

Adults under a spell

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. - It is said that youngsters in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington never forget the misspelled word - like "trouvaille" or "odylic," to name recent troublemakers - that knocks them out of the competition.

So why not try to set things right as a grown-up?

As youth spelling bees grow in popularity and gain ever more attention with the hit documentary Spellbound and the new Broadway play 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, spelling contests for adults are catching on, too.

Jeff Kirsch, 53, won last year's National Senior Spelling Bee in Cheyenne - 39 years after making it to the elite seventh round of the Scripps bee.

"I never really let go of the fact that I didn't win the national one as a child," said Kirsch, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of Spanish and Portuguese. "I thought, ÔWell, I'll compete in the senior one.'"

Kirsch won the senior bee by nailing "milleflori," a glassware term for a pattern made by slicing across bundles of fused glass rods. He said he got more attention from winning the bee than from any of the three novels he has published.

The National Senior Spelling Bee, for contestants 50 and older, began with a few Cheyenne AARP members and a dictionary 10 years ago. About 50 spellers from around the nation are expected to compete in this year's bee Saturday.

Spellers are disqualified on the third missed word. That is not as cutthroat as the Scripps bee, where kids have to step aside for misspelling just one word.

Also unlike the Scripps bee, where first place brings nearly $30,000 in cash and scholarships, the senior spellers compete mainly for bragging rights. The winner gets $100, the runner-up $50 and the third-place finisher $25.

Other adult bees have popped up around the nation in recent years. Many are fund-raisers for libraries and schools.

The eight-year-old Iowa City Spells benefits the Iowa City, Iowa, public library. In Texas, the four-year-old Chronicle-Fado All-Adult Spelling Bee, sponsored by The Austin Chronicle and Fado Irish Pub, raises money for the Austin library. A contest in Ithaca, N.Y., last year raised nearly $9,000 for teachers.

For Bill Long, 53, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and runner-up in last year's National Senior Spelling Bee, the enjoyment comes from using language precisely and gaining a better understanding of the world through words.

"In law, words are your currency, so you need to be able to choose good ones to be persuasive," he said.

Kirsch, as a past champion, cannot compete in the national senior bee again. But Long is determined to win this year. He pledged on his Web site last month that he would memorize all eligible words in the 1,459-page Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. With a week to go, he said he was through 1,310 pages.

The site includes dozens of short essays on words he finds interesting, such as "champerty," a legal term mentioned by Chaucer in the Knight's Tale. It means getting involved in a lawsuit for the sake of keeping it going.

"I've kind of accumulated words like some people accumulate garbage and put it in their attic," Long said.


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