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The Buzz About Bees

by Rose Madeline Mula

In the fashion world, brown is the new black; on the health and beauty front, sixty is the new forty; and on the scholastic scene, a spelling bee is the new Big Game, and a champion speller now outshines the star quarterback or homecoming queen.

Who would have ever believed that knowing how to spell “chiaroscurist,” “xanthosis,” or “pickelhaube” could earn someone, not only an “A” in English, but also national acclaim, and — even more important — the admiration and envy of his or her peers? It’s the classic revenge of the nerds:

“Yes, Bix, I know you were elected the Handsomest Homeroom Hunk and that you kicked the winning field goal that won the championship for Cornhusk High for the first time in twenty years, but I’m going to the prom with Wilbur. He can spell “vivisepulture”!

For almost two hundred years, spelling bees, which originated in the early 1800s, were the domain of brainy, and therefore unpopular, kids. Recently, however, the contests have become so cool that ESPN annually televises the Super Bowl of bees — the Scripps finals.

Even Broadway and Hollywood have latched onto the craze, turning out hit shows and movies featuring spelling bees — a concept which sounds like box office poison, but which instead is raking in big bucks. Go figure.

It is ironic that spelling bees have become so popular in an age where misspellings are not only tolerated, they proliferate — i.e., “The Boyz ‘n the ‘Hood,” “phat pharm,” “C U later,” “R U coming?,” “gangsta,” “hoe” (I’m not talking gardening tools here), “What’s ur sign?,” and thousands of other abominable abbreviations that confront us daily in our newspapers, magazines, television screens, highway billboards, and especially on our computer monitors. We foolishly rely on spell-check programs that will allow us to type something like, “I went two the store too buy to pounds of hamburg.” All the words are spelled correctly, so we don’t bother to question whether the computer has checked for context. In addition, the informality of e-mail seems to have given us license to corrupt the language mercilessly, fostering a whole new vocabulary of phractured phrases and phonetic phantasies.

At the opposite side of the spectrum, the regulations for spelling bees are more stringent than Robert’s Rules of Order. Could this be God’s way of evening things up?

Admit it. Isn’t it refreshing to know that some kids busily study word lists for hours each night instead of sitting at their computers divulging their real names, addresses, and anatomical measurements to an online sexual predator or trying to out-gun the Super Mario Brothers? And how about seeing these kids conservatively dressed and neatly coiffed as they respectfully ask an adult, “Could you use that word in a sentence, please?” It’s like 1940 all over again. None of the girls (including the prematurely well-developed ones) are wearing skin-tight, spaghetti-strapped, plunging neckline camisoles; and not even one boy sports low-slung, baggy jeans or a tee shirt with an X-rated slogan. Who knew spelling bees could accomplish such miracles?

Adults are also jumping up on the spelling stage. My town is one of thousands throughout the country that hold annual bees where teams from various organizations compete with each other. Last year I was recruited to join three other women to form a team from our senior center. We were pitted against town teachers, retailers, business executives, and young homemakers. It wasn’t pretty. We went down in the second round. We misspelled “misspell.” For days, we had studied lists of difficult words (I was even prepared to spell “supercalifragilisticexpialadocious”) only to be tripped up by such a simple word. Oh, the ignominy! (Sure, that one I can spell. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the words thrown at us.) Red-faced, we resorted to the handy excuse that we all had had a senior moment, and we fled the stage and ducked out of the auditorium before the house lights came up.

After that experience, I’m thinking of applying for a position as a writer of TV captions for the hearing impaired. Even with my limited abilities, I could do a better job than what’s being done currently. Case in point — within less than five minutes this morning, I noted the following gaffes:

He/She Actually Said The Caption Read
She found solace in She found sliss in
I’m ready to meet my son I’m ready to heat my son
He cited an unnamed source He sited an inane source

Obviously there’s plenty of room for improvement. I’m ready for the challenge. By comparison with the present transcribers, I’m sure my performance would be supercalifragilisticexpialadocious.

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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