Scripps National Spelling Bee is a feast for food word lovers

Two metro Atlanta youths to compete in televised contest May 28-30
Dev Shah of Largo, Florida won the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. This year's competition will take place May 28-30 in National Harbor, Maryland. 
(Courtesy of Craig Hudson / Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Credit: Craig Hudson / Scripps National

Credit: Craig Hudson / Scripps National

Dev Shah of Largo, Florida won the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. This year's competition will take place May 28-30 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Courtesy of Craig Hudson / Scripps National Spelling Bee)

The stage is set for the 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which takes place May 28–30 at National Harbor, Maryland. After earning their spots in regional bees, 245 participants ages 8 to 15 will battle in a war of words.

Competitors from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana and Department of Defense Schools of Europe will compete in four segments of competition, including vocabulary rounds.

To get to where they are, students copiously have studied the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary (the official dictionary of the Bee), paying attention to etymology and parts of speech. The compendium holds more than 476,000 entries, including the 690 new words added last year. Among those are food words such as “guanciale,” “smashburger,” “jollof rice” and “torta.”

The 57 returning contestants this year know firsthand how important food words are in the lexicon of competition. They may study the unstressed vowel sound called the schwa or borrowed words from Greek, Latin and German that are the cause of many errors, but the things we eat can really trip up a speller. More than a dozen words from the food and drink world were spelled incorrectly in 2023, sending those competitors home. Words such as “lager,” “Bundt,” and “tapioca” ended dreams of a trophy for a few.

An outing to an Italian restaurant could have helped the kids who misspelled “pappardelle” and “agnolotti.” “Vermicelli” and “farfalle” were also among the pasta words in last year’s rounds. At a delicatessen – which was a spelling word – a contender could study words like “mortadella” and “cornichon” while eating both in a sandwich.

Matthew Baber, 14, of Peachtree City is competing for the second year in a row at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
(Courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

“I really like Italian food,” said Matthew Baber, 14, of Peachtree City, who has earned a spot as Speller No. 50 in this year’s national competition. We talked about how many Italian food words last year’s contestants missed. “Yeah, there are a billion different types of pasta,” said the Rising Starr Middle School eighth grader. “One of the pasta words in particular that used to trip me up on a lot is ‘fedelini.’ You would expect it to be spelled with two Ls, but it is not; it’s just one.”

Georgia’s other representative at this year’s national competition is 10-year-old Sarv Dharavane, a resident of Dunwoody and fourth grade student at Austin Elementary. As Speller No. 51, Dharavane has been studying a list of dozens of pasta words that he compiled from Merriam-Webster.

Baber, who also competed last year and tied for 57th place, creates Quizlet lists from Merriam-Webster Unabridged, sometimes even with food words. “One of the interesting things about food words in particular, is that you have food from a lot of different places,” he said. “There are a lot of different languages contributing to those words.” To him “rijsttafel,” an Indonesian rice table feast, is a rather good spelling word. “Since Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony, it has obviously contributed to the etymology of the word,” he said.

Sarv Dharavane, 10, of Dunwoody is competing in his first Scripps National Spelling Bee.
(Courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Dharavane has a few favorite food words including “croquembouche” (“it’s really sweet and like an upside-down ice cream cone”), “provolone,” (“it adds good flavor to pizza”), “banh mi” (“it’s my dream sandwich”) and “rotisserie,” which he said “just rolls off the tongue.”

Two contestants from last year faced food words in two rounds. Speller No. 83 was challenged with “cioppino,” a fish stew, and “belon,” a prized flat oyster from Brittany, France. Speller No. 219 effortlessly spelled “banh mi” and “saltine.”

Some of the spellers may be gourmands (which was a word in singular form in 2023), having knowledge of words like “sous vide,” “ratatouille,” “boudin,” “Camembert” and “croustade.” A future speller’s stack of study cards must include traditional dishes of various nations, lest they err when asked as they were last year about “colcannon,” “avgolemono,” “pistou,” “mochi,” “carnitas,” “bibimbap,” “sopaipilla,” “lebkuchen” and “pot-au-feu.”

When asked if there was a word he thought would make an excellent spelling bee word, Baber suggested “schmierkase.” Another word for cottage cheese, it’s basically American phonetic spelling of a German word. “In German it had an umlaut over the A, but somehow to English it disappeared and it’s pronounced with a (hard) sound, not usual for German.”

Dharavane has advice for spellers — and people in general. “If you go to a restaurant, try something new, something that seems a little different from what you normally eat,” he said. “If you look at the title of that word and save it for later, it might be the word that you might win on. Just because you made a different decision, you could win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Even in the grocery store.”


2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee

May 28-30. Televised coverage on ION Plus. For schedule,


History of the Scripps National Spelling Bee (SNSB)

In 1925, nine American newspapers joined in sponsoring students to compete in a national spelling bee. The first competition drew more than two million participating children at the local level with nine contestants traveling to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Bee, according to Britannica. In 1941, the E.W. Scripps Company assumed sponsorship of the Bee, and in 1958 Merriam-Webster became affiliated as the official dictionary of the Bee.

Over the years, it expanded to include contestants from other U.S. territories and countries with the goal of inspiring children’s exploration of words and fostering lifelong curiosity. Since its inception, the spelling bee has only been canceled from 1943-1945 for World War II, and in 2020 due to COVID-19.

How does one qualify for the SNSB?

To qualify for the Bee, contestants must win a regional competition, such as the Georgia Association of State Educators State Spelling Bee. Contestants must be younger than 15 as of Aug. 31, and they can’t be past eighth grade. They also cannot have previously won the SNSB, and they must attend a school officially enrolled with the SNSB. All spellers must have a sponsor to attend the national competition. The 2024 Georgia contestants, Matthew Baber and Sarv Dharavane, are sponsored by the Georgia Association of Educators.

How many contestants are there this year?

This year there are 245 contestants with 12 competitors from outside the 50 states.

Who are the past Georgia winners?

Mattie Lou Pollard of Atlanta won in 1947 with the word “chlorophyll,” and Colquitt Dean of Atlanta tied for first place in 1950 with the word “meticulosity.”

What does the winner receive?

The national champion receives a $50,000 cash prize, a medal and a trophy from the SNSB; a $2,500 cash prize and reference library from Merriam-Webster; $400 of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica and a three-year membership to Britannica Online; a prize package from SugarBee Apple and Scholastic; and $1,000 Scholastic Dollars to be donated to the school of the champion’s choice.

Compiled by AJC reporter Olivia Wakim.

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