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The bee's knees: Spelling bees and pop culture

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

At 14 years old, you are not the best at most things. You are in middle school; you are learning about algebra and ancient civilizations, puberty, and prose. Maybe you are trying out for the soccer team or band. Whatever you choose to pursue, the assumption is that you will be pretty average. For Dev Jaiswal ’23, though, (and the other 11 million students who compete in school sponsored spelling bees each year) 14 years old was pretty much the sweet spot: middle school, for the serious, marks the peak of their spelling abilities. And, for the particularly serious, their introduction to a national media environment that has made spelling bees a cultural phenomenon.

This pinnacle, as well as the increased media attention, is primarily due to one overarching factor: the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Started in 1925, the bee first began when a newspaper out of Louisville, KY, consolidated various local spelling competitions until it was eventually taken over by the E.W. Scripps Company in 1941. Since its beginning, the bee has run every year except from 1943-1945 due to World War II and 2020 due to the pandemic. Its longevity, though, is juxtaposed by one of its startling hallmark features. The bee is only open to competitors who have not yet turned 15, completed their eighth grade year, or won the bee before.

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Essentially, Scripps is the Olympics of bees, and once spellers age out, they’re pretty much done with intense competitions. 

The Daily Princetonian sat down with Jaiswal, a former Scripps finalist, to hear a bit more about his experience in the bee. 

Jaiswal said he first became interested in the competition after his sister attended the Scripps bee in her eighth grade year. The enthusiasm wasn’t immediate.

“I always saw her working really hard at spelling and thought, ‘I don’t really want to do this, it’s too hard,’” he said.

However, accompanying his sister revealed there was some fun along with the difficulty of competing in the bee.

“The national spelling bee is actually really fun because it’s not just a competition. You go for a week, and it’s three days of competition and three days of fun activities,” Jaiswal explained.

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The competition week, aptly dubbed “Bee Week,” encouraged Jaiswal to try out spelling bees for himself. He completed his first bee in 2011 as a fourth-grader and attended the national competition for the first time in 2012 as a fifth-grader, where he placed 51st.

After not qualifying for the national bee for the next two years, he once again made it to D.C., the home of the bee, in 2015. Because he was in eighth grade, this would be Jaiswal’s last time competing.

Jaiswal took full advantage of the opportunity.

“I scored a perfect score on the written test. I was one of three. Then, I had the highest score going into the final.”

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It was in this final that Jaiswal ultimately struck out, although the disqualifying word proved to be perhaps more fruitful than any victory. The word in question? Iridocyclitis, or, according to Merriam-Webster — the official dictionary of spelling bee competitions — “inflammation of the iris and ciliary body.” Don’t ask for a language of origin.

Jaiswal, who replaced the ‘y’ with an ‘i,’ shot to stardom in a matter of seconds after misspelling the word. Six seconds, to be exact. A video of Jaiswal repeating the word before attempting the spelling quickly went viral on Vine, a now-defunct short-form video service that featured six-second clips. Since the debut of the video in 2015, the clip has accumulated millions of views on Youtube alone, making Jaiswal a bit of a campus celebrity.

The video that went viral on Vine, though, was not the extent of the story.

“Yeah, I’ve always sort of felt that there are two camps of people who have seen that video. Originally, it wasn’t the whole video that took off from there,” Jaiswal said. “It was just a shorter clip, which I’ve always been confused by. Because like personally, I don’t see what’s funny. I just said the word.”

The longer video, which Jaiswal alluded to, showed his reaction after finding out he had been eliminated. Jaiswal graciously accepts defeat, thanking everyone for the opportunity with a wide smile on his face.

“I was pretty happy when the longer video took off of me as well, because that was a special moment for me,” he said.

The moment was made especially profound due to Jaiswal’s failure to qualify for the national bee during the previous two years.

“I did not expect to get in 4th place. Because all I really wanted was to make it back to the bee because I had fun in 2010 when my sister was there and I had a lot of fun in 2012. I just wanted to go for fun, basically,” Jaiswal said. “Everything after I made it to D.C., like the perfect score, making it to the finals, being ranked number one before going to the finals, was all a surprise. I was happy even to be out.”

Jaiswal described how as a result of sharing his story, he became a bit of a fan favorite among the viewers: “I guess people liked my personality when I was on stage. So, I ended up being termed the fan favorite by ESPN.”

This type of media attention, though, is not unique to Jaiswal. CNN was one of the first media outlets to cover the bee, though it was picked up by ESPN in 1944, where it remained until 2021. Next year, the competition will move to the TV network of its namesake, E.W. Scripps.

Paired with the news coverage of the spelling bee, the early 2000s saw an increase in media devoted solely to spelling bees. In 2002, “Spellbound,” a documentary which eventually earned an Academy Award nomination, followed seven competitors as they prepared for the national competition. The 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee,” starring Keke Palmer, portrayed a young girl training and eventually competing in the bee. In the 2013 film "Bad Words," Jason Bateman, a 40 year-old eighth-grade drop out, attempts to compete in the bee himself. Most recently, Netflix premiered “Spelling the Dream” in 2020, which showed four Indian-American students on their journey to the national bee.

Spelling bees’ prevalence in pop culture, especially recently, is particularly notable. Other academic competitions, such as quiz bowls or geography bees, are rarely portrayed in the media. Or, at least, not at the same intensity.

Jaiswal attributes this phenomenon to a few different factors. He described how, for geography bees, math bowls, and quiz bowls, “Not every school has the resources to put a team together. I’m from Mississippi. There was no math bowl or anything like that.”

Conversely, for spelling bees, “We all have words. You don’t need any equipment to do it,” Jaiswal said.

Not needing equipment doesn't mean lots of resources don't go into bee prep, however. Jaiswal, unlike many of his fellow competitors, did not have a coach to help him prepare for the bee.

“Coaches are very expensive,” Jaiswal said. “That was never feasible.”

His parents couldn’t coach him since “they are English language learners. They speak it very well, but it's completely different from doing a spelling bee.”

Instead, Jaiswal learned a lot of tips when he first competed in the bee in 2012; mainly, you just have to devote a lot of time to the practice.

“It takes a lot of persistence, a lot of hours of studying. But I always thought it was fun, which also helps,” Jaiswal said.

He would begin by studying the roots and patterns of words. Then, whenever he came across a word that he didn’t know in a definition, he would follow that word.

“One word can lead you to 20 different words,” he said. “And those 20 different words can teach you maybe five or six different roots you haven’t learned before.”

The accessibility of language, according to Jaiswal, also contributes to consumers' infatuation with spelling bees.

“People are fascinated with spelling bees because we all use language. We don’t all use math, for example, in a competition sense,” Jaiswal said. “You feel like there’s something you can learn or be challenged by in watching [a bee]. That challenge isn’t necessarily accessible to you if you don’t have some base level of knowledge, such as in a different discipline.”

Perhaps, then, the media craze around bees is ultimately a selfish one — due to the accessibility of bees, and language as a whole, viewers can center themselves in the competition, playing alongside actual competitors in a way they couldn’t with math competitions or geography bees.

Though, even this accessibility has its limits. The average viewer, at least, would certainly stumble upon a word like “iridocyclitis.” It even tripped Jaiswal up.

But now, perhaps due to the 3.1 million hits on Youtube and the niche fame the word has afforded him, or maybe because you never forget your missed word, Jaiswal isn’t misspelling it anytime soon.

For the final question of the interview, the ‘Prince’ asked him to spell the now infamous word.

“I-R-I-D-O-C-Y-C-L-I-T-I-S,” he said, with a grin similar to the one that once graced his eighth grade face all those years ago.

Clara McWeeny is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at claramcweeny@princeton.edu, or on social media @claramcweeny.

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