A spelling bee for grown-ups returns to Atlanta

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Orthographic Meet

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Orthographic Meet

The Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet comes back after two-year hiatus

Close your eyes and think of a spelling bee. Chances are, you’re picturing a nervous line of children, pivoting from one foot to another under glaring lights, waiting for their turn to take the mic and see once and for all if fortune favors them. Now replace that with another image: A gaggle of 100-150 adults drinking and eating with their friends at a beloved neighborhood watering hole, furiously scribbling on pieces of paper for the glory of a pewter beer stein.

That latter scenario, in wild contrast to the famous Scripps National Spelling Bee, is how the Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet has run its own version of competition for adults for more than 50 years. Held the Saturday after Valentine’s Day each year, the Bee (for short) is a roots-up community event aimed at bringing together Atlanta’s most passionate word nerds — or, as 2020 champ Erin Tone put it, “a lovely group of people who love words.”

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Orthographic Meet

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Orthographic Meet

Over the years, the Bee has weathered ice storms and temporary relocations, like the one year when Manuel’s Tavern was undergoing renovations when they temporarily moved to Anthony’s Pizza and Pasta near Your DeKalb Farmers Market.

Longtime Bee organizer Larry English, a Birmingham, Alabama, native who moved to Atlanta in 1997, still shakes his head sometimes over what he says is his most controversial, even “tainted,” win. That is, when he claimed victory at the Bee during one of Atlanta’s winter freeze-overs, when some of his fiercest rivals had stayed off the roads due to ice and missed the event.

But despite its longevity, what ultimately threw a wrench in the Bee was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. But after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, on Feb. 18, the Bee will return, complex strings of letters a’blazing.

The Bee began back in 1971 at the Stein Club, an oft-mythologized, smoke-filled, liquor-flowing haven for artists and bikers alike that used to sit on Peachtree Street in Midtown — an address now occupied by a salon where haircuts start at $83. Things were a bit rowdier then, as longtime Bee competitor and now co-organizer Beatrice “Beatie” Divine recalls. The former health communications specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention always came home with the stench of cigarettes threaded through her clothes.

When the Stein Club closed in 2000, the Orthographic Meet transitioned to another beloved community watering hole: Manuel’s Tavern, which, though it has faced challenges, still stands at the corner of North and North Highland avenues.

Here’s how it works. Round 1 has 20 words, which shrinks to 15 in Round 2, then 10 in Round 3, and just five in Round 4. But those five get brutal. Stand-up comedian and writer Vandy Beth Glenn, a Bee regular since 2006, has come achingly close to winning more than once but has yet to land in the coveted victor seat.

One year, she made it all the way to a two-way tie at the end of the final round. She and her rival went through two tiebreakers until, finally, she flubbed the word incipit. No, not insipid. Incipit, meaning the opening words of a text, manuscript or chanted liturgical piece.

Each round, the Bee committee, or “Beekeepers,” have two people pronounce each word. That tradition started thanks to the thick accent of one of the Bee’s founders, the late Eugene Brown, M.D., a former Emory physician whose drawl was apparently so syrupy that Divine offered one year to co-pronounce the words with him.

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Orthographic Meet

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Orthographic Meet

The standard stuck, and now the committee takes shifts saying the words aloud, two at a time, to make sure that the competitors — leaning in closely as the words take shape — have an okay shot at getting it right.

After each word has been pronounced, competitors have 20 seconds to spell them by writing them on paper. If you think you made a mistake, you must cross out the whole word and write it again rather than erasing or inserting letters.

Even getting through Round 1 is a feat. To paraphrase Quint’s U.S.S. Indianapolis speech from “Jaws”: 100 people go into the water (of the competition), and only about 20 or so make it out (into the second round). From there, the field gets whittled down to 10 spellers in Round 3, then five in Round 4. Any ties proceed into sudden death.

In 2017, Roula AbiSamra and Constantina Psomas made history with the Bee’s first official tie, after the committee ran out of prepared words following no less than 10 sudden death rounds. Through the heat of battle, a bond was forged, and now, whenever she sees Psomas out and about across town, AbiSamra said she instantly goes, “‘Oh hey, it’s my co-winner!”

The first time AbiSamra won was back in 2010, after she had just moved back to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. On a lark, she decided to meet up with friends at Manuel’s on what happened to be the night of the Bee. She wound up winning the whole kit and caboodle. And she’s come back every year since.

It was a destiny planted way back in childhood, a time when AbiSamra said she “was kind of a know-it-all. If I saw a spelling mistake, I was like ‘oh my god, you got that wrong’.” Over time, “I grew up, and my actual ideas about language and the moral value of being correct have changed. I don’t care if someone’s a good speller anymore. What hasn’t changed is how much I love a good competition.”

The Bee’s many bylaws range from those officially enshrined to those that serve as more of an unofficial honor code – like how competitors are encouraged not to “study” too much beforehand. These have evolved as the group has expanded, and various competitions have brought about new challenges.

Captured in ink is that you must be 18 or older – and ages represented each year often vary from tables of 20-somethings to octogenarians. To ensure that new competitors have a fighting chance, the Beekeepers have ordained that once you win three times, you must “retire” and, if you’re interested, join the committee. There are no Joey Chestnuts at this hot dog stand.

The Beekeepers will meet periodically throughout the year in the lead-up to the Bee and discuss exciting new words they’ve come across. Though the Beekeepers range professionally, including musicians, professors, doctors, and others, they’re all unanimously voracious readers with an abiding love for the ephemeral nature of the English language. Things like letters that appear in unexpected places, like phthisis, an archaic medical term used centuries ago to describe diseases like tuberculosis.

Preparation is a fine and delicate art aimed at equitably distributing words across fields of expertise and language origins, etc. After all, you don’t want the doctors in the room, the lawyers, or the ballerinas, to get the sole advantage.

To do this, the Beekeepers methodically use a spreadsheet with all the words they’ve already used to cross-reference carefully. Over the last 50 years, not a single word has appeared in the roster twice. Words with multiple spellings get ruled out.

But the key rule above all, Divine said, is that “we also think about what words would be fun.” One of Divine’s favorite words from the Bee was “fard,” a verb for putting facial makeup on. Although the spelling may be simple, the proximity to one of the universe’s funniest words for flatulence was an enjoyable little twist.

Another tradition: Every year, the first word is a topical one. For instance, in 1993, when the Clintons moved into the White House, Hillary Clinton’s maiden name, Rodham – meaning a patch of willow trees – kicked things off. In the early aughts, when changing the Georgia state flag was a hot topic of debate (it changed in 2003), the committee started the bee with “vexillology,” or the study of flags.

Throughout it all, participants cite how refreshing it is to just give their brains a good puzzle, and to marvel at the dexterity and difficulty of the English language. Yes, for a couple of decades, spellcheck has been able to catch mistakes automatically and we can look up almost anything on our phones now. But, AbiSamra said, that’s not the point. “We still go to the local craft fairs and local artisan producers because they do things with their hands that machines can also do,” she said.

Despite the recent advent of AI-generated writing from tools like ChatGPT, which has stirred up conversations about the value and future of writing, Erin Tone said she finds gatherings like the Bee to be all the more meaningful and even defiant in some ways.

“The thing I love about words is that they are acts of creativity. Choosing the word that best fits what you want to say; there’s magic to that. I think this is a community of people who are drawn to words and find the wonderful, detailed things you can express with them to be fascinating and precious.”

The first year she won, Tone said she came home with a beer umbrella, bottle of wine, and some other random knick-knacks. “The stakes are low, but the camaraderie is high,” she said.


Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet

7 p.m. Feb. 18. Free. Manuel’s Tavern, 602 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. atlantaopenorthographicmeet.com.