If you think spelling bees are for kids, adult spelling bee champion David Riddle has news for you. At 58, David has been fighting it out on the adult spelling bee circuit ever since he was first drawn into the scene back in 2004.
What's more, there aren't many titles left that don't bear his name. And that includes the most prestigious title of all on the adult spellers calendar — The National Senior Spelling Bee, held in Wyoming each year, which David nabbed in 2005 after only a year of competitive spelling.
MYRMECOPHI-what? Where do they find these words? And how on earth does this guy seem to know them all? Naturally, the ever-curious Word-Buff wanted to find out. So I tracked down Dave through an old spelling bee forum he used to frequent and pretended I just wanted to ask him a couple of quick questions...
Interview with David Riddle
Tell us a bit about the guy in the photo.
I live in the central California coastal town of Pacific Grove, where my wife of 31 years and I raised a son who is now in college.
Prior to our settling in California, I lived and worked in Hawaii where I met and married Linda, an art teacher. We traveled a lot due to my assignments as an Army attorney. We lived in Korea, Belgium and Germany.
I am now an Army civilian providing legal assistance to service members and their families at the Defense Language Institute. It’s a great job. I’ve run competitively nearly my whole life of 58 years and have jazzed up my fitness routine with tennis at a local club.
What prompted you to enter your first adult spelling bee, and what was the experience like?
About 10 years ago, my son, Christoph, was just getting into school spelling bees. Then out of the blue came an announcement of the upcoming Pacific Grove Library Adult Spelling Bee for teams of three. Heck, if Christoph was going to risk the embarrassment of blowing a word in front of a crowd, then the least I could do was to take on the same challenge and gain some genuine empathy for him.
What better way for me as his coach to strengthen my coaching cred? Also, I had done well on spelling tests in grade school and so was intrigued by the idea of competing in an adult bee.
Many people think spelling bees are for kids. This has never made sense to me given the huge popularity of Scrabble, Crosswords, and so on. Anyway, you've certainly helped prove the belief wrong! Can you give us a list of the adult spelling bees on your personal calendar?
Wholeheartedly agree — we’re witnessing a robust movement of adult spelling bees.
They range from party-atmosphere fundraisers with teams competing for most spirit and best costume awards in addition to the trophy. On the other end of the spectrum is the hypercompetitive AARP National Senior Spelling Bee in Cheyenne for individual spellers 50 and over.
In between are the bar room battles such as the two staged in Portland and Seattle (bees I’d like to try) and one in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
My sentimental favorite is one in Joshua Tree, California. There, in 2005, my 80-year-old parents joined me as teammates.
And who was the Joshua Tree Spelling Bee Champion Family that year? You'll never guess...
How much of your typical week is devoted to word-study?
My study is inconsistent at best. Juggling time among family, friends, work, running and tennis leaves little time beyond the checking of tough word lists to refresh myself.
My weird-word pursuit peaked when I was drilling my son for the county championship in 2004 and his subsequent trip to the Scripps National Bee. I stayed focused until winning the 2005 National Senior Bee, averaging 10 hours during the week and another 10 over the weekend for about six months.
These days I rely heavily on past study. Spelling isn’t everything, but it remains a deep passion of mine.
Can you tell us about one or two of your most proud spelling bee performances?
New York City area hardcore enthusiasts converge on Pete’s Candy Store (a bar) and engage in a rollicking, fun-filled spelling fest in the dimly lit backroom shaped like a train car. Jen and bobbyblue sing the bee’s theme song. The words of each round are progressively more difficult and contestants face a three-strikes-you’re-out rule.
The eleventh season’s series of bees was recently staged every two weeks from February to June. My wife and I happened to be in New York last February and were naturally drawn to the event. At the end of the night, those who placed first through third automatically qualified for the final. I was one of the lucky three to make the big-time spell-off in June.
The 15 finalists produced an earthshaking level of high-end spelling. I can’t remember how many words I had to spell to win but the last two made the event unforgettable. I had never heard of CACOSPHYXY before, for good reason. It’s not in my dictionary. I had to put together "caco" (bad) and the tail end of asphyxy (from asphyxiate) to construct it.
My wife and I rummaged through all the medical books in the largest bookstore in New York City, Strand, and couldn’t find the darn word.
My final word was one that is not at all pronounced as it looks (thanks to its Afrikaans and Dutch origin). Fortunately, UINTJIE (AYNchee) was a familiar Webster’s Unabridged word out of southern Africa meaning the "edible corm of various plants especially of the family Iridaceae that when boiled tastes like a chestnut." (Don’t ask if I knew that!)
Spelling it not only sealed the victory (and a giant neuron that hangs proudly in my office!), but doing so led bobbyblue to declare uintjie the hardest word ever spelled over the six-year history of the bee.
— The neuron ceremony, with the kind permission of Jennifer Dziura
If there were an adult national bee of the same scale as Scripps, who would be your most feared rivals?
I wouldn’t fear anybody, which is not saying I wouldn’t lose to any one of the top adults out there. I’ve been enjoying this stuff too long to invite fear into the fun.
I already know I can brain-cramp on a simple word and have done so. With that mindset going in, I can almost forget about performance anxiety. I just think it best not to plan to win a bee but to seize the challenge and savor the experience.
What are some of the memorable words that have knocked you out of contention in recent times?
SACRILEGIOUS — A local bar/restaurant staged some rowdy nighttime bees a few years ago. I have never imbibed before spelling. Except once — and it’ll be my last time.
After a beer, the neurons simply stopped firing, and the cranial paralysis disabled my ability to remember where to put the middle I and E. The word is tricky enough already without the alcoholic brain fog!
FANTOCCINI (a type of puppet show) — In the last Santa Cruz County Boys & Girls Club Adult Bee I spelled every word correctly yet was still eliminated.
We were three on a team and had a board to write the words on. Team members consulted on the spelling and one member wrote the word on the board. Then teams were called upon to show their boards for the judges.
I neatly wrote our words on scratch paper, including fantoccini. Our scrivener in turn copied my printed word. But when he showed our final word, the judges got an eyeful of FONTOCCINI. Goodbye to the team named Plan Bee!
PRURITUS — The lesson learned in my first spelling bee (the Pacific Grove Bee, 1999) was that picking teammates based on profession doesn’t guarantee anything. We had a doctor on our team to cover us on medical terms, yet we got the dreaded ding for an itching we preferred to end with an -ITIS.
One of my favorite spelling bee reads is an article you wrote about your appearance on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Can you tell us how that appearance came about, and describe what it was like for you to take part?
The Broadway musical was playing up in San Francisco. Since it had to do with spelling and had won a Tony Award, the Riddle family had to go. I threw my name in the hopper to be selected as one of the four audience participants to spell in the finals and, as luck would have it, I was selected.
Being an audience participant in the Putnam Bee was reminiscent of those scary school dreams many of us have from time to time. (It’s exam time, somehow we’ve forgotten to attend class all semester, obviously we haven’t studied and, of course, we can’t find the classroom.)
Onstage the spelling was the easy part. For most of the hour in the spotlights, I struggled to follow the actors' instructions — "Dance? Are you kidding me?" — and worried about what would happen next. Putnam was my only bee in which I couldn’t even see the audience, although the cheers of the crowd certainly helped.
By the time I returned to my seat I was exhausted and exhilarated. It was an experience of a lifetime!
If us oldies were allowed to enter Scripps National Spelling Bee, how do you think you would fare against the finalists, based on the quality of speller seen there in recent years?
I’d be one of the first in line to try. A strength of my spelling comes from having learned an abundance of words from the Webster’s Unabridged, the source for the Scripps Bee.
An initial disadvantage of some senior spellers is that the National Senior Bee word source is the Webster’s Collegiate, which has far fewer words than the Unabridged. However, I have no doubt that some of my senior speller colleagues, free of teenage angst, could join me, study up, and level the playing field so we’d have some top finishers in the finals.
The kids would have untiring youth, hard work, genius and undoubtedly some high quality coaching on their side. To defeat such a formidable combination in this hypothetical bee, we might have to engage in some psychological tactics onstage to throw them off their game.
We would execute a general ruckus just short of disqualification: obscene burps, noticeable nervous tics, wheezing and hyperventilation episodes, and fainting spells (à la 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga at the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee) all readily come to mind.
I know of no rules forbidding odd, sloppy make-up or the wearing of horridly mismatched clothing. And that next-up, precocious seventh-grader will have a deposit of mysterious gunk on the mic to contemplate. "I didn’t do it!" the adults shall unanimously proclaim.
In desperation, we would have our "coaches" and geriatric parents lodge official complaints about the grade-schoolers' distracting immature behavior such as giggling, high-fiving one other, tracing imaginary words in the air or bothering pronouncer, Dr. Bailly, with etymological questions.
Well, I'll be first in line for tickets! But getting back to the real world...
How do you identify the words you need to focus on and then find time to rehearse a list of words that must be virtually endless?
I just review words on my lists that I have missed or only guessed correctly. I remove a word if I’ve never missed it after three tries.
My complete Collegiate list covers about 17,000 of the book's hardest words. Of those, I only have to review a small percentage because I studied the list to smithereens back in 2005 before the National Senior Bee.
On the other hand, Webster’s Unabridged is much bigger than I am and is seemingly endless. So although I have lists based on the Unabridged, they are quite limited but study-manageable. I’m not about to go off the deep end and try to make a complete one as I did with the Collegiate.
Do you organize words into lists? If so, what sorts of lists do you find most helpful?
It’s especially helpful to use a list comprised of clusters of words that I might confuse with one another. That includes not just homophones, like CHURR and CHIRR, but words that have a similar pattern, like JINRICKSHA, RICKSHAW, and KICKSHAW.
Another element I have in a list is all the nouns ending in O that require an -ES ending in the plural form.
What proportion of the Webster's Collegiate do you think you know? What about Webster's Unabridged? By 'know' here, I mean words you would get right in a Spelling Bee.
Webster’s Collegiate — Excluding commonly ineligible spelling bee words, such as those that are capitalized or hyphenated, and if I’ve studied, about 95%. After a beer, 22%.
Webster’s Unabridged — I don’t think astronomers have a reliable way to measure black holes yet. They’ve only worked out estimates of mass. Likewise, Webster’s Unabridged does have an ascertainable mass. But I submit that no one knows the length and breadth of what’s inside either entity. So the percentage of words I could spell is unknown. After a beer, 100%.
What's the best way to get hold of reliable collections of spelling bee words and lists nowadays? Scouring the dictionary feels like 'reinventing the wheel' with so many people having already done that. But on the other hand, how do we trust the selections that we find plastered around the Web?
The first question to ask is what source a particular bee is using to compile its word list. If the source is the Webster's Unabridged or the Collegiate for the Scripps National Bee then I would recommend HEXCO, which sells extensive lists and has a proven track record.
Scripps no longer posts its 18,000-word Consolidated Word List chock full of previously used words. However, you can still find it on the Net. I have lists for aggressively attacking the Webster’s Collegiate. They will be available for purchase soon.
Everyone should have a copy of Webster’s Dictionary of Prefixes, Suffixes, and Combining Forms to sharpen the ability to piece together unfamiliar words when asked to spell them. It’s online.
Spelling bee preparation seems like an obvious target for computer software. What computer-based spelling system/s do you use and/or recommend to help contenders make the Bee finals? Is it still possible to make it with pen and paper?
Any program that allows you to input your own words. Success with pen and paper is definitely possible.
Can you tell us a bit about your role as a spelling bee coach and adviser?
As a coach I tried to lead by example and have the entire family involved. In our first spelling bees my son did well and my team did well — but no honors.
To improve, I began poring over obtuse spelling word lists, definitions, and, to a certain degree, etymologies. This learning experience enabled me gradually to bolster Christoph’s chances of succeeding in the one bee that counted, Monterey County. He really wanted to go to the National Spelling Bee in DC.
Motivated to right that 1st year’s "loss" at the Pacific Grove Adult Bee and set an example for Christoph, I organized teams that won three years straight. My family always sat at our table as supporters. My wife, Linda, and Christoph would always attend these events. Linda, the artistic one, orchestrated our awesome table decorations and Christoph spelled for practice. We had a culture of spelling in our family.
As parents know, the pressure is immense if your child hasn't achieved what he/she would like to achieve – e.g., place in or win school, county, regional, national competitions - whatever it is. (That’s tough on parents too.) Christoph tried and tried to win county. In his last-chance effort, he and I knew he was the underdog. The girl who had been second in the previous two county championships was back again for her last try too.
Finally, on his third try, after a grueling record-breaking marathon, he won to qualify for the 2004 National Spelling Bee. Family and coach’s dream fulfilled!
Soon he turned around and started drilling me on words. We later teamed up and hammered out some victories in adult bees.
What books and dictionaries, if any, would you say are indispensable additions to a bee contender's bookshelf?
The serious speller should inject laughter into study with Jennifer Dziura’s pizzazzy Word of the Day site. I love her wit and humor and the comical way she thinks of the words she asks you to spell.
We've talked a lot about the 'analytical' aspect of spelling bees, but how important is the emotional component of spelling bee preparation and performance?
It’s uplifting to discover a new word and learn it. Exhausting all the lists needed to study for the next bee instills satisfaction and inspires the kind of confidence of knowing you’re about to ace an exam. In our pre-bee team huddle, my son and I express this supercharged cockiness with "Let’s go kick some spelling butt!"
The early years of preparing for bees aren’t easy though. I mentioned the pressure is immense for kids. I believe the same holds true for inexperienced adults. There are lots of hard words. There is Gut Dread.
Gut Dread is the physical and mental state of a speller before the big event. It’s nervousness. It’s all about performance anxiety. Gut Dread will weaken athletes. Spellers succumb to this seemingly obligatory pseudo-sickness. In this mind-frozen state you’ll say a K when you mean a C, spell too fast and skip an obvious letter, or make some other silly mistake.
The way to manage Gut Dread is to do more spellings bees. Get experience. Also, many spellers agree that after spelling the all-important first word, the jitters take a hike. Then it’s all about focusing. You capture a mental image of a familiar word, you ask all the relevant questions on unfamiliar words, and you spell slowly. Hey, this isn’t so bad after all.
You should find some relief after you absorb more and more new words and discover there is a tendency of some words to be recycled from prior bees.
There are those who have immunity from Gut Dread. They are godlike people who are drawn to adult bees solely because of their strong support of charitable causes. They simply spell and feel good about themselves (they’re entitled to) no matter what place they finish.
In the final analysis, planning your outfit is everything. No, really, you asked about prep. Some would argue that what you wear in a spelling bee doesn’t make a smidgen of difference (except if you’re trying to outspell a better seventh grader as I discussed earlier). Nothing I wear makes me feel smarter. Others say how they dress has a lot to do with how confident they feel. Wearing a costume, as so many teams do, works that way too. And if you’re going to be in the limelight, dress smartly or in costume, because you don’t want to embarrass your family and friends when you are presented your first spelling prize.
Do you get asked to host spelling bees, or act as pronouncer, sometimes? How do you like being on that side of the fence for a change?
I occasionally switched roles at the local bar/restaurant bees and pronounced the words alongside a comedian who emceed.
The easy part was reading the phonetics, giving the sometimes tipsy participants the maximum info to help them, and being excited for a correct spelling or sympathetic when I had to sound the kazoo.
On the other hand, I was challenged in having to interact spontaneously with the comedian. It was tough to transparently move back and forth between the preciseness of a pronouncer and the unpredictable one-liners and repartee of the comedian. Shades of the Putnam County Bee! I got better by the time the place went belly-up.
In my role as pronouncer, I created over 50 lists of words each with a different theme appropriate for spelling competitions. These will be for sale soon.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when they host a spelling bee? Is there anywhere a spelling bee organizer can get good advice on running a bee?
The people associated with adult bees are goodhearted folks who advocate worthwhile causes like the promotion of literacy, library enhancements, a disease cure or the local Boys & Girls Club. The National Senior Bee is not a fundraiser, but it’s run by like-minded people to encourage seniors to come together, share a common love, and exercise our gray matter. The bar word wars are generally just for fun. So I’m not one to be critical of these good-natured competitions.
However, something seems to go wrong at virtually every bee. In most cases the snafu is minor and doesn’t matter. The most common problem is mispronunciation of words by the pronouncer, who may not have received the word list well enough in advance, or hasn’t mastered phonetics.
Another issue is the unfair inconsistency of words within the same round. I’m talking about words so divergent in difficulty that the "luck-of-the-draw" excuse has no merit.
The words should also increase in difficulty with each round so that the bee doesn’t plod along for 60 rounds or hours on end. Consider the spectators and volunteers who eventually want to go home.
Linda Tarrant, owner of HEXCO, talks to lots of people who are conducting bees and gives them concrete suggestions. HEXCO publishes extensive word lists and guides. Two of them, the Organizers and Bee Prepared, have a couple of pages of information and tips on conducting a bee.
Meg Poag, Executive Director, Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, runs the Austin Great Grownup Adult Bee that raised a whopping $79,000 this year. She’s the guru of fundraiser bees and is happy to pass on her wisdom.
Joanne Bowlby, AARP Wyoming Associate Director, Communications, is the point of contact for the National Senior Bee and regularly gives out advice to spelling bee organizers. You can contact her at "firstname.lastname@example.org". According to Joanne, a documentary video on the National Senior Bee is scheduled to air in the fall.
Outside of spelling bees, are you into any other word games or puzzles? Given that the primary word-source for the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary
is Webster's Collegiate, which you've pretty much devoured, you'd be off to a flying start in competitive Scrabble - any interest?
Maybe some day. Time constraints don’t allow for semi-serious dabbling. My heart is in spelling. I would likely find I wasn’t blessed with the necessary aptitudes to succeed in scrabble. The mental gymnastics and strategy that make a good scrabble player are awesome!
Can you give us a few tips for any future spelling bee champions reading this?
Neuroscientists believe spelling ability is located in the part of the brain that handles visual processing. Learn all the words you can so you can see them in your mind’s eye. You can’t fully count on spelling rules at highly competitive bees. There’s a reason many of the words on a spelling bee list are there. They each have some trick to them. You’re better off summoning the letters into "view" than relying on a strategy of spelling a word like it sounds.
Build your armor for the word-bullets you’ve never seen before by learning the spelling patterns derived from the many languages that make up English.
Remember how much chance plays in a spelling bee. Through diligence, you may know every other word on the list. But if you don’t know the next one, you’re dead meat.
But so what? Spelling Bees are not just competitions. It is an understatement to say they’re fun events. Missing a word is trivial in the big picture. Enjoy the camaraderie, costumes, entertaining emcees, food and drink, outrageously weird words and unpredictability – we’re all nuts to participate so let’s just accept that.
Well Dave, I can't thank you enough for your generosity in giving us so much insight into the fascinating world of serious spelling, and the thriving sub-culture of adult spelling bees.
And folks, if you enjoy reading articles like this about the eccentric underworld of words and word games, you'll probably enjoy Word-Buff Stuff!, a free eZine I send out from time to time. If that sounds like you, just add your email address below and I'll make absolutely sure you get the next issue...