When Jacques Bailly won the Scripps National Spelling Bee as a 14-year-old in 1980, his first reaction was relief. After spending two grueling days onstage with 100 other young contestants sounding out words like schottische, mahout and elucubrate (the winning word), he recalls just wanting the competition to be over. But nearly 30 years later, he's back again at the World Series of spelling as the contest's official pronouncer. At this year's finals, which kick off May 26 in Washington, D.C., Bailly will read each word and provide its definition, origin and context. TIME spoke with Bailly about mitigating the "giggle factor," empathizing with (and being entertained by) the teenage contestants, and why spelling bees are as American as apple pie.
You've been the official pronouncer since 2003. What was that first year like, to see those students up there? Did you find yourself sympathizing with them? (See the National Spelling Bee winners from the past 10 years.)
Oh yeah, I always have. I always want them to get all the words right. I think that's a lot of the fun of the spelling bee you root for everybody. And I try to make it clear to the spellers that I'm there to give them absolutely every possible thing that I can to help them within some limits.
Like the speller who asked you last year if you could use the word espousal in a song.
I told her she wouldn't want me to. I can't sing at all! [Laughs.]
Several panelists choose the final word list, and you determine their etymological origins. I also read that the "giggle factor" is taken into account when choosing words.
Well, there are some words that have sounds within them that you might not want to say or emphasize on national TV. And within a long word, you might have those sounds. And you can just imagine a child emphasizing that syllable and not even realizing it.
A good example happened last year with the word numnah.
What was really funny is, the contestant was so relieved when he found out what the word really was a saddle blanket. My job at that point is to get everybody back on track. I just played the straight man to the hilt. I didn't even crack a smile.
There have been other memorable moments too, like the contestant in 2006 who literally had a fainting spell.He's a wonderful young man. He got right back up and spelled the word.
There are a record number of contestants this year, and thousands of people tune in to watch the bee on ESPN. Why do you think it remains so popular?
It has this sort of all-American cachet. It's kind of like baseball and apple pie. It's also something that anybody can try, sort of like playing Scrabble it's easy to get the hang of. And these kids are right at an age where they're like adults, but they're not adults, and they don't have a game face, so it's fun to watch them. You can read the storms, watch the sun come out you can see all that on their faces when they get a word.
How did the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound affect the contest?
It had a positive message: that people of all walks of life participate in this. You talk about a multicultural society, and you look up on that stage and it's very multicultural and in a really broad way, a kind of diversity you can't see just by looking: socioeconomic diversity, religious diversity, a diversity of interests. That documentary brought out the idea that all these kids are just kids. They come from normal schools, normal homes. They're all interesting.
You actually played yourself in another Hollywood movie about the contest, Akeelah and the Bee.
I did, although you can't recognize me, they put so much makeup on me. [Laughs.] That film had a great message too, that you should study the history of words and foreign languages and the meaning of words more so than just memorizing them. If you're an Indiana boy with German ancestry and you get a Hawaiian word, the only way you're going to get it right is if you had studied the patterns of the language itself. Hawaiian is an amazing language because it has very few sounds and the spelling is pretty systematic. So if you get a word like "humuhumunukunukuapuaa," you can spell it, even though nobody else can. It's the same way with German words. To us, they sound pretty hard, but to a German, words are spelled like they sound. There couldn't be a spelling bee in German, or Japanese, or French, or any other language.
Why is that?
English is a voracious melting pot of a language. It's basically what the Anglo-Saxons brought over from the mainland to the British Isles. Then that was overlaid with Latin, because the British Isles were conquered by the Romans and converted to Christianity. Then the French conquered the island in 1066, so French was the official language in England for 300 years. With the Renaissance came a big influx of more Latin words. You had the Scientific Revolution, so you had a big influx of Greek words. Then with colonialism, the language started taking words from everywhere. So you get words from the Iroquois languages, Sanskrit, Arabic, Javanese and Hindi. Most other languages don't tend to do that. Because English has taken words from all different languages, it has a whole bunch of competing spelling rules and systems, which makes the spelling bee more challenging.
You've been the official pronouncer since 2003. How did you land the job?
In 1990, I wrote to the spelling bee and said, You know, I won in 1980, and in the 10 years between, I've learned a lot more French, German, Latin and Greek, and I was wondering if you could use some help from somebody like me. And at that point, they just happened to have a need. So I got in there as associate pronouncer, and that job is basically just making sure that everything the pronouncer says is right. It was a pretty easy job because [predecessor Alex J. Cameron] was good. Every once in a while I would just kind of nudge his elbow and nobody would ever know.