W-I-N-N-E-R! Desi Kid Wins Spelling Bee, Again

13-year-old Sameer Mishra spelled “guerdon” correctly to win the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The word, rather wonderfully, means “something that one has earned or gained.” Champion!

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Sameer was a crowd favorite throughout the tournament. When told one of his words in the semifinals was a dessert, he deadpanned: “That sounds good right now.” He rolled his eyes and muttered “wonderful” when told that one of his words had five different language roots. He once asked “Are you sure there are no alternate pronunciations?” In another round, he uttered “That’s a relief” after initially mishearing the word “numnah” (a type of sheepskin pad).

And what did he have to say while hoisting the heavy trophy? “I’m really, really weak.” link

Seriously, this kid was a delight. The last desi to win was Anurag Kashyap in 2005. Only three years ago, but an eternity for a competition heavily loaded with over-achieving, heartbreaking desi kids.

As someone who can’t spell cat without spell-check, I never really paid attention to or understood the mesmerizing drama of spelling bees. Not until I recently saw the documentary Spellbound. Suddenly the years of study, weight of familial expectation, the children’s innocence and drive, the announcer’s voices, the rigid rules, the way personalities emerged in unexpected ways under crushing pressure…This was nail-biting, stomach-knotting suspense!! Hot damn!!

I caught a bit of the finals last night – this year seemed harder than ever before. After the jump, a list of the twelve finalists (five desis!) and the words faced by the last three standing in order of elimination. Of 16 rounds, here are the final 4:

Round 13:
Sameer Mishra (Lafayette, Indiana) spelled hyphaeresis correctly.
Sidharth Chand (Pontiac, Michigan) spelled Kulturkampf correctly.
Tia Thomas (Coarsegold, California) spelled opificer incorrectly.

Round 14:
Sameer Mishra spelled taleggio correctly.
Sidharth Chand spelled introuvable correctly.

Round 15:
Sameer Mishra spelled esclandre correctly.
Sidharth Chand spelled prosopopoeia incorrectly. (He was so close! Spelled it “prosopopoea.”)

Round 16:
Sameer Mishra spelled guerdon correctly. And wins!

Round-by-round results for the twelve finalists are here.

Second place winner Siddarth Chand is on the left, and two of the four fourth place finishers are center (Samia Nawaz) and right (Kavya Shivashankar). What is it about desis and spelling bees? We’ve posed the question before but appear to have answered it only partially, at best. Then again, the fact that desi kids also kick-ass in the geography bee might mean there is some truth to the idea that desis like gulping trivia like little brown pac-men. Whatever the case, I’m still scratching my head, spellbound.

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Previous SM coverage of the Spelling Bee: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

94 thoughts on “W-I-N-N-E-R! Desi Kid Wins Spelling Bee, Again

  1. The bit about Numnah was very funny. He misheard it as “numbnuts” and spelled that word, to the predictable response.

  2. I’m not really sure if this is something to be proud of. This kid basically wasted countless hours memorizing useless information. I feel like spelling bees reward the wrong things. Children are pushed into spending time learning about spelling, when they could be studying some much more useful things. Other pursuits would be far more beneficial for a child’s brain and overall education. I think that most spelling bee finalists have turned out to be pretty average achievers in academics later in life. I’m sure a lot of these kids look back on their time training for a spelling bee as big wastes of their youth, with nothing to show for it (except the winner who does at least get some cash).

  3. What is it about desis and spelling bees?

    Jon Stewart’s explanation from 2006 for desis being good at spelling – “Your names already have like 20 letters in them. That’s a huge advantage. That’s always going to win against Bob Smith”.

    I once read the hypothesis that desi kids learn English more by reading than by listening, so their spelling and grammar are subject to fewer errors than kids who pick up English primarily by listening. This includes grotesque errors like “I could of done that” instead of “I could have done that”. I don’t know how much truth the hypothesis has, however.

  4. I wonder too, about the desi fascination with spelling bees..in fact, (plug alert!) I blogged about it a few days back. Our ability to gulp trivia is certainly a part of it..

    I don’t agree with Kapse on these kids wasting countless hours studying. For the really serious ones, it’s something they are passionate about and actually love doing. They don’t just memorize words, they also learn languages like French, German, Italian and so on because it helps them with the etymology of the words. Surely that’s “useful studying”?

    At 13 and 14, these kids were amazingly mature..Kavya, for one, was very composed and poised. I was really disappointed she lost, but hopefully next year will be hers.

  5. By the way, I am super annoyed that they moved the final round to Friday this year. The ratings would have been much better if they had kept it to the middle of the week like previous years. Only geeks have time to watch the riveting spelling bee final rounds on a Friday.

  6. Only geeks have time to watch the riveting spelling bee final rounds on a Friday.

    And this is bad, how?

  7. What a delightful post, Cicatrix!

    Ping at 6:

    I once read the hypothesis that desi kids learn English more by reading than by listening, so their spelling and grammar are subject to fewer errors than kids who pick up English primarily by listening.

    I subscribe to this. I grew up in India speaking English–my first language. But you know, my English is not all that much better than so many desis who grew up speaking their native language at home. And I dated some of these people. Their English is good because of the books they read. You won’t find either them or me saying things like, “laying in the beach all day”, or “the plane will land momentarily”.

    Kapse at 5:

    I’m not really sure if this is something to be proud of. This kid basically wasted countless hours

    Other kids waste time by watching TV, playing Nintendo, following boy-bands … So why not memorizing lists of words nobody uses? I myself am a closet logophile and studying word histories, following their short unhappy lives filled with strife or their long, contorted story of change, is deeply satisfying.

  8. Sidharth Chand is actually from West Bloomfield MI not Pontiac… he was just sponsored by a Pontiac newspaper.

    And I get the feeling Desi kids do well at the Bees [Spelling & Geography] because a lot of our parents emphasize education to the point where if you win a prize or you have one to focus on they end up glowing with pride.

    I was the only kid in my class to end up in the geography bee finals at my middle school all three years and I don’t even like geography. everything i knew was just from school.

    I once read the hypothesis that desi kids learn English more by reading than by listening, so their spelling and grammar are subject to fewer errors than kids who pick up English primarily by listening.

    Are you talking about desi kids born and raised in India? or just generally all desi kids? Because if its all desi kids, i think that’s a broad and bizarre hypothesis.

  9. 11 · Abhi said

    Only geeks have time to watch the riveting spelling bee final rounds on a Friday.

    Btw, I was in a bar last night and guess which geek lady was I was conversing with – Chair of English dept. of local univ. !!

  10. 13 · my_dog_jagat said

    I myself am a closet logophile and studying word histories, following their short unhappy lives filled with strife or their long, contorted story of change, is deeply satisfying

    thats interesting. i have thinking of venturing into this area for quite sometime. Btw here is a book that will interest you – Wordplay: The Philosophy, Art, and Science of Ambigrams

  11. 2 · razib said

    brown winners. interesting, no east asians i can see…. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scripps_National_Spelling_Bee_champions 1985 Balu Natarajan 1988 Rageshree Ramachandran

    “What is it with desis and Spelling Bees?”

    While overall, I’d rather desi kids (and all kids for that matter) grew up well-rounded, and not “four-eyed” – in some cases, the ability to spell long words correctly is useful, and sometimes it does predict well for later academic success. Rageshree Ramachandran, (1988, ‘elegiacal’) for example, went on to get an MD-PhD from Stanford. Now here’s the actual title of a paper she wrote last year:

    Intradural Extramedullary Leptomeningeal Hemangioblastomatosis and Paraneoplastic Limbic Encephalitis Diagnosed at Autopsy: An Unlikely Pair

    In spite of all her later academic success, though, Google pulls up the Time article on her from 1988 – 20 years ago – for winning the Spelling Bee right up top!

    Why no East Asians – maybe they’re all out learning piano and violin, i.e., useful stuff :)

    Noticeably Eastern European likely-Jewish names start appearing in the 1930s, but nowhere near in the same relative numbers as desis today.

  12. More power to the families and kids who are into spelling bees. I like to read the stories of ‘where are they now’? So the BBC interview on George Thampy linked above was good.

    National Spelling Bee can change winners’ lives tracks the early desi winners Balu Natarajan and Rageshree Ramachandran.

    A couple on Nupur Lala’s later activities from the wikipedia link follow.

    Spelling’s busy bee

    Spelling champ-turned U-M student finds fame is enduring

    One theme that I find interesting is that some of the older winners, even if they are doing other things in life are coming back as judges or volunteers or paid help at the spelling bees every year.

    As I was looking for articles on these winners I came across this one on the National Geography Bee for this year, that I had missed. More on that here.

    So if any of you find stories on where these kids are now, please post.

  13. Only geeks have time to watch the riveting spelling bee final rounds on a Friday.

    blushes

    I watched them.

  14. I totally watched. I feel no embarrassment whatsoever in admitting that once I found out it was on (I have no TV at the moment), I ran to my car and drove to a friend’s place to watch the final hour. It’s awesome! And it seems like they’ve made a few changes in recent years in light of people recognizing how competitive these academic settings are becoming–allowing the parents on the stage, changing up the rules for the final 3 and final 2 spellers, etc.

    You can argue that anything’s a waste of time if you really want. Who uses calculus on a daily basis? And spelling bees go beyond stringing letters together into etymology, history, culture, all sorts of awesomeness. The pressure is rough, though…you see some of those kids come away in tears or looking so utterly dejected and it makes your heart ache for them.

    And who says it’s purely a desi thing? There are a lot of us up there, but it says something that brown kids only win once every few years (granted, a lot more lately, but still)–we aren’t the only ones gunning for it.

  15. How do people feel about spelling bees? My theory is that DBDs who grew up in India with its emphasis on rote memorization find this worthwhile, would any ABDs here encourage their (hypothetical) kids to participate? I am enthusiastic about math league, quiz teams, science fairs, writing competitions, but I have always found this to be questionable/border line silly. Young Sameer is to be congratulated, this is an accomplishment and I disagree strongly with teachers who don’t believe in emphasizing correct spelling sans Word spell check, but at what point does the ROI for spelling ability diminish? The road to Pomona/Vassar is paved with good intentions….

  16. How do people feel about spelling bees? My theory is that DBDs who grew up in India with its emphasis on rote memorization find this worthwhile

    Yes this is extremely true. it also reinforces the notion of the Indian being the “good worker” and the white guy being ” the good manager” Not saying these kids should stop spelling, just don’t make that the only thing.

    Nupur is famous because of the movie spellbound. a quick glance at the link shows she’s blossoming quite nicely.

  17. 27 · louiecypher said

    I am enthusiastic about math league, quiz teams, science fairs, writing competitions, but I have always found this to be questionable/border line silly

    I think I agree with you on this. If I don’t know the spelling of some obscure word that is hardly useful in either daily or professional life, I can look it up. Why be an expert on it ? Other mentally-challenging games to excercise the brains of kids, some of which you mentioned, are kind of better. For e.g. geography quiz instead of spelling of the names of the places.

  18. Indians (from India) should participate–it would be fun to watch an ABD vs IBD contest.

  19. Indians (from India) should participate–it would be fun to watch an ABD vs IBD contest.

    I am an ABD, my bet is on an IBD from an urban/private school background. But most ABDs,including myself, would happily forfeit

  20. would any ABDs here encourage their (hypothetical) kids to participate?

    I plan to ride my kid hard like Secretary at the Preakness so that (h)she wins the triple crown of the spelling bee, American Idol, and Mr/Ms. Teen USA.

  21. OK – this is not only about rote memorization – though it can be about, or lead to, excessive bookishness/nerdishness/geekiness. Thankfully, the kids that are winning seem more well rounded, have a sense of humor, are poised under pressure, banter with the MCs, and play to the crowd. Those qualities will help them both inside and outside of academic contexts, for a long time.

    What makes the Bee fun and not just a memory game – is the fact that English is not a phonetic language, but there are some rules, which work most of the time, except when they don’t. It would be no fun having a Spelling bee in Italian, which is far more phonetic, and no fun whatsoever in Sanskrit, which is absolutely phonetic. Even within the rules that exist, there are different spelling and pronunciation conventions in English – British, American, Canadian, and that can affect things some of them time. French is at the other end in terms of lack of phoneticism – there is a many-to-one mapping of words to pronunciations, so a Bee might never be possible in French, or at least, I can see how it can be much much harder.

    One trend I’m noticing is toward biomedical-scientific terms in the ‘winning word’ – sarcophagus, psoriasis, logorrhea, odontalgia, autochthonous. Slightly far out as a theory, but this trend might help some desi kids, especially kids of scientists and physicians.

    To the extent American kids end up learning other languages via the entry of French/German/Spanish/Italian words into the Bee, I see that as a good thing too.

    On IBD kids from India vs ABD kids – ABD kids would have a major edge simply from being more familiar with the whole Bee idea, and how to prep for it – plus, especially in the earlier grades, spelling and pronunciation conventions in India are still British – though rapidly becoming American, so maybe that advantage is fleeting. On the other hand, if Bees become widespread in Indian grade schools, then the law of large numbers might work in favor of Indian IBD kids. IBD kids from the US (kids who come over in the earliest grades) might have a slight edge over ABD kids simply from the competitiveness they bring over – though I might be biased on that.

  22. It may not only be just about rote memorization, but I don’t think it’s all that interesting (subjective I know) or a predictor of future accomplishment in the way that Westinghouse/Intel, Math Olympiad or debate clubs are. Once again I don’t want to detract from Sameer’s accomplishment. It’s all cool if he enjoys it

  23. Loved it when Sidharth threw one back at Dr. Jacques A. Bailly by pronouncing ziarat in a desi accent.

    Yeah, that was great! Even Tom Bergeron made the comment that he was pronouncing it with a “hindi accent”

    Samir and Kavya were my favorites. I was crushed when she was out… But I’m rooting for her to make it next year!

    And I’m not ashamed to say that I watched it on a Friday night.

    Was anyone else surprised at the number of words with hindi/sanskrit origins?

    satyagraha ziarat numnah

  24. I actually cried during “SpellBound”. It’s not sad, but still sweet and heart-breaking. Anyway. Yay, some desi kid won:)

  25. Hey! Wordaholics are not all bad . David Cook, the AI winner is a word freak – which Simon (S)Cowell made fun of!! Go figure!

    I think that “Ziarat” episode is so fraught with possibilities – good and bad. I tried explaining “t” and “th” to the S.O…and…….i’m tired. And the “is there any other pronunciation” question? Does it imply “as pronounced by Americans?” Jeez! So much is subjective – which is the beauty and probable trouble spot for the Bee.

  26. ….about the rote learning, i did think so until last night. The choice of words made things interesting. I came away with the idea that BEE is about “ferreting out rules where there are apparently none”. Much like trying to get an Amercian Visa. Now you know why the Norwegians are bad spellers.

  27. I hate all these kids…but especially the desi ones. I know a kid who won the Geography Bee. What a total effing douchebag, he was and is. What a bunch of freaks…they probably spend all their time reading encyclopoedias or some other BS. Seriously, if I saw one them on the street I’d punch him in the throat. These pathetic losers should be mocked and derided for being such miserable idiot-savant failures of human beings, not celebrated.

    CS

  28. Anyone see “Bee Season” ? I thought it was interesting how both mystical Judaism and Vedic streams of Hinduism place so much emphasis on sound. Where is PG when we need her? She is a 9th degree kabbalist on top of being a Krishna bakht and can probably animate a papier mache golem with her incantations

  29. I too used to laugh at the spelling bees not as an event, but for the amount of time spent on it by parents of these Indian kids. In that doc Spellbound, a lot of the indian kids looked way too serious. And George Thampy was kind of sad to look at. Despite his spelling acumen, his speech pattern was that of a “slow” kid. Maybe his parents could have spent some of that time sending him to speech therapy? And then you had one Indian kid whose father got him tutors in the German, French origin of words. The funny thing, the same guy trips on Darjeeling and asks the judges what the origin of Darjeeling is.

    However, it’s better than kids knowing all the trivia about Paris Hilton or Britney Spears latest outing. Or watching dumbass crap like Deal or No Deal or other braindead game shows. In fact, I feel Deal or No Deal is very successful because of the super simplicity of the show.

  30. I love this Sameer kid!! He actually has a personality.

    On ESPN.COM they have a whole article on Samir Patel, the kid who was supposed to win every year, but didnt. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=3414046

    Sameer and Samir, which one is correct? Have one of these kids ironically been spelling their own name wrong their whole lives?

  31. How do people feel about spelling bees? My theory is that DBDs who grew up in India with its emphasis on rote memorization find this worthwhile, would any ABDs here encourage their (hypothetical) kids to participate?

    Ok, as a kid who participated in her county spelling bee (oh to be naive and simply enjoy words), I completely disagree with this statement. Spelling bees are much less about rote memorization and much more about figuring out the history and patterns/rules of the English language.

    You may value Westinghouse, etc., because it speaks to the things that excite you when you learn, or because there is a tangible product/output from the process. That said, I would say that spelling bees parallel being a mathlete. In both, you’re asked to apply the concepts underlying what the competitions about (math, spelling) to discrete problems (I think geography bees could fall under this categorization as well). Does that mean there are people who simply drill in something so they can win the prize? Absolutely, but I think there’s a real joy that underlies discovering what words are about.

  32. Also, what makes any of this a “waste of time”? I also liked soccer as a kid; were the hours and hours of training and games a “waste” because they didn’t contribute to anything but my own happiness? Is playing an instrument, and possibly competing in musical contests a waste? People have different things that get them excited and passionate. I am in favor of embracing the many facets of geeking out, not reviling them.

  33. W-I-N-N-E-R! Desi Kid Wins Spelling Bee, Again

    Did any bangladeshi, nepali, pakistani or srilankan kid ever won Scripps National Spelling Bee? just curious…

  34. In my previous comment I meant Did any bangladeshi, nepali, pakistani or srilankan origin kid ever won Scripps National Spelling Bee? just curious…

  35. 5 · Kapse said

    …I think that most spelling bee finalists have turned out to be pretty average achievers in academics later in life…

    Average! Not quite!! Take sister of this year’s winner for example. She was in National Spelling Bee 4 years ago. She is headed to Princeton U. Not quite average!!!

  36. 15 · Bridget Jones said

    Most desi parents and their kids are crazy specimens !

    You do sound crazy!

  37. 40 · Celeritas Subpontus said

    I hate all these kids…but especially the desi ones. I know a kid who won the Geography Bee. What a total effing douchebag, he was and is

    you sound like a keeper yourself!

    What a bunch of freaks…they probably spend all their time reading encyclopoedias or some other BS.

    i knew incurious george was a lame duck who occupied himself by two-stepping on the white house portico, but who knew he had so much free time as to hang out on sepia?