Spelling bee sets Writers House abuzz

Saturday's Spelldown at Kelly Writers House brought fierce competition, book donations

The Daily Pennsylvanian
April 2, 2007

Free food, live music and … floccinaucinihilipilification?

That was just one of the strange words competitors were asked to spell at the Kelly Writers House Spelldown Saturday evening.

The event, held to collect children's books for donation to the South Philadelphia YMCA Early Head Start Program, attracted a few brave Penn students and many adults who were eager to show off their spelling skills.

Contestants who donated multiple books were entitled up to three lifelines, allowing them to ask a friend for help in spelling a word.

But the lifelines did not always help. When Penn alumnus Jordan Smith was given the word "floccinaucinihilipilification" - which means judging something to be worthless - he turned to a random man in the audience for help.

"I'm a graphic designer - I don't know how to spell," the man replied. Giving up on the word, Smith began to spell out the man's sentence instead.

The next participant failed to spell the word as well, saving Smith from elimination.

Audience members were periodically awarded prizes in a ticket raffle; winners were asked to spell a word but received the prize regardless of whether they succeeded.

After a fierce competition for third place left Political Science graduate student Wendy Ginsberg with a $25 gift certificate to Pizza Rustica, the remaining two competitors took a break, during which the local band Red Heart the Ticker performed three songs for the audience.

When the competition continued, John Leigh and Smith battled it out for a one-night stay and breakfast for two at The Inn at Penn and the right to call himself the Spelldown champ.

When Smith misspelled "halation," victory was in sight for Leigh, who spelled the next word, "hierarchical," correctly to grab the win.

Leigh explained that his old college friend and Writers House program coordinator Erin Gautsche sent out an e-mail to her friends asking them to participate.

He added that his only preparation was - coincidentally - coming across an online blog listing difficult words a few days before the event and looking over them.

Although Smith came away satisfied with the second-place title and a $25 gift certificate to Club Saturn, he was disappointed with his performance.

"I'm devastated because I misspelled 'squeegee,' and that will haunt me for the rest of my days," he said, with tongue firmly in cheek.

The idea for the spelling bee came from Writers House Community Outreach Coordinator and College sophomore Aichlee Bushnell, who said she was inspired to hold the event after hearing about the popularity of spelling bees in Brooklyn.

Bushnell said there were currently no plans to make the spelling bee an annual event, but she expressed interest at the idea.

"It would be cool to make it a continuing thing," she said.