Carmel teen advances to semifinals of Scripps National Spelling Bee

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. - Forty-six spellers in the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee will advance to Thursday morning’s televised semifinals, including Alekhya Ankaraju of Carmel.

Ankaraju is an eighth-grader at Carmel Middle School. She is also an accomplished singer and a talented musician.

As their names were called, they lined up on the stage of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center with medals around their necks. Many appeared shocked they’d made it, as parents and supports shouted, cheered and cried with happiness.

The afternoon round began with 257 of the original 281 spellers. They successfully kept their chairs on stage with words like objicient (argumentative), Valkyrian (related to battle), formicivorous (feeding on ants), pikas (small mammals of the Asian mountains), ocellus (an insect eye used for detecting light) and wordsworthian (relating to the poet William Wordsworth).

A crowd favorite and the youngest speller, Hussain A. Godhrawala, 8, of Barnwell, South Carolina, seemed overwhelmed with joy when he got his word relating to nails or claws: unguiculate. Nine-year-old Kasey Cuenca Torres of San Angelo, Texas, got a rousing reaction to his winning phaeton, an open automobile.

Words that knocked out spellers in the second on-stage round included jeroboam (a wine bottle), obtundent (having the power to dull pain), palatalize (use of the tongue in producing sounds) and diphtheria (a childhood illness).

While many relished their opportunities to banter with pronouncer Jacques Bailly, others seemed in a hurry to get away from the microphone. Instead of asking for languages of origin, parts of speech, or definitions, Nicole Seman, 13, of Leesburg, Virginia, Madeline Rickert, 13, of Minot, N.D., and Zander Reed,11, of Ankeny, Iowa, went straight to correctly spelling their words: faustian, connoisseur, and Holstein, respectively.

Semifinalists will take a further written test Wednesday evening.

The first stage round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee eliminated 24 of the 281 who began the day, with contest-ending stumbles on words such as keeshond, a Dutch dog breed, and paradigm, referring to patterns.

The dramatic 87th running of the iconic American showdown over obscure words for exotic animals, unfamiliar foods, medical terms and other curiosities went 41 spellers before the first error. The young scholars, aged 8 to 15, successfully spelled such tongue-twisters as sassafras, cynosure, ipecac, balalaika and panglossian.

As in prior years, the spellers often distinguished themselves with jaunty greetings for the longtime pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, such as 14-year-old Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., whose cheery, "Hello, Dr. Bailly and friends," brought nervous laughter from the crowd in the grand ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.

Again this year there are spellers who write invisible words on the backs of their name-and –number placards, on arms, on hands and in the air. Others bite lower lips, tousle their own hair or stick hands deep in pockets. Standouts sought to engage the crowd with their own brief stand-up comedy routine, as when Neha Seshadri, 13, of Detroit, asked Bailly: "May I take a deep breath, please?" When he said yes, she replied "Back to business."

The spellers hail from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. overseas territories, Defense Department schools in Europe and seven foreign countries. Under the rules, they will advance based on correctly spelling words in the rounds on stage combined with a written test taken on Tuesday’s opening day of the bee. Semifinalists were announced late Wednesday afternoon.

The annual event has over time become a major phenomenon with more than one million students participating in local bees leading to the regional winners who reach the national championship’s limelight. The final rounds Thursday night will be televised live in prime time, and the winner can expect to appear on national morning news programs.

Some spellers were clearly relieved at getting such common words as lieutenant, poignant, pyre, escargot, rapport, visceral, dichotomy and mistletoe, but also seemed to welcome such head-scratchers as galjoen (a sport fish of Africa), roodebok (a small antelope) and schottische (a polka-like dance).

Ed Horan, 14, of Hoboken, N.J., had the crowd breathless as he appeared stumped by the word for puppets moved by overhead strings, then nailed fantoccini. Similarly, Mary Polking, 14, of Charlotte, N.C, repeated the first few letters of the word for a man’s felt hat, started over twice, then committed herself to the right vowel in the second syllable, and spelled homburg.

Some of the words few use in conversation have become standards that the students have heard year after year befalling their predecessors, such as mandir (a Hindu temple), quisling (a turncoat), jeremiad (an angry tirade) foggara (an underground conduit for carrying water), tarragon (an aromatic spice), Baedeker (travel guidebooks), and bobbejaan (an Afrikaans word for baboon). The languages of origin for Wednesday’s words ranged from Algonquin, Javanese and Yiddush.

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