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Remembering Joe Paull and the spelling bee

More than 1 million words currently reside in the English vocabulary and quite a few of them owe their origins to Latin and Old English.

There are the Dutch derivatives, and the French and German carryovers, as well.

Even Yiddish is in there, if you look hard enough.

A glance down at your smartphone will cause your synapses to spark whole tech-lexicons begat by Silicon Valley, even if you don’t realize it while tapping out a text or calling up that funny dog video. 

You don’t have to be a linguist to appreciate that skirt was upswept in our dictionary by way of Old Norse.

And that expensive comes from Latin, with its richness of cases, genders and moods.

Heck, who doesn’t enjoy a tasty helping of jambalaya, so long as it isn’t being consumed with a tsunami bearing down?

While you’re at it, go easy on the schadenfreude — since you never really know what’s lurking on the other side of the paycheck or streetlight for you, should you catch yourself taking glee at another’s misfortune.

Words, words and more words … with Joe Paull singing out more than his share.

Paull was the educator and community advocate who died last week after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Three generations of youngsters here knew him as the guy who pronounced the words for the Monongalia County Spelling Bee.

He did the same at other bees across north-central West Virginia.

Just like it sounds?

Spelling bees are those word-bent events that are rites of passage even for the kids who would rather do without English class.

Such multisyllabic sprees serve as the opening act for the Big Dawg, spelled D-A-W-G.

Dawg, as in the 95-year-old Scripps National Bee, which, in the 21st century, even gets its final rounds on ESPN.

Or, it did, before the coronavirus strode to center stage last spring.

It was Paull, as said, who had the lofty and important task of pronouncing the words — exactly — while giving the definition, country of origin and even a usage in a sentence if a speller needed some seconds to assemble the letters.

He was courtly and affable.

And, if he came off as a teacher, that’s because he was one.

Spelling out a career

The Uniontown, Pa., native taught junior high math and science before shifting his professional orbit to NASA, where he traveled the country giving lesson plans on behalf of the space agency.

He eventually splashed down in Morgantown, earning a doctorate in administration from WVU.

A job with the former Regional Education Service Agency led to his work with county school districts and spelling bees —  which he didn’t mind, given that he grew up with a love of reading and crossword puzzles.

For 30 years, he presided over the bees, voicing the words that competitors gleefully spelled and nailed, or were flummoxed by.

There were the words that made them go glassy-eyed, and the words that reduced them to giggles and guffaws, just because they — well — sounded funny. (Babushka, anyone?)

There were the hidden-trap words such as cooperage and clique, penitent and portentously.

And the easy ones you thought you knew — until you were frozen at the microphone with your mom and dad watching from the auditorium seats.

Sometimes, Paull would halt it all and resort to recorded audio of a just-spelled word, to make sure a participant got it (happily) or was dispatched by it (unfortunately).

Last word

Critics of spelling bees say the repetition and the learning by rote make for fleeting moments of memorization: Moments, they say, that are gone just as soon as the kid takes the trophy or has slunk to his seat, defeated, in the final round.

Paull would always chuckle at such notions while pronouncing them … wrong.

“For one thing, there’s no spell-checker,” he said.

 “The kids are in the arena, alone.” 

Prepping for the bee helps with reading fluency, he said.

It fosters self-esteem, critical thinking and deductive reasoning, he added.

Don’t forget the etymology, he stressed. That’s history, anthropology and sociology — all wrapped up in a word.

“That’s what our kids who do spelling bees get to take home,” he once told The Dominion Post.

“I’m proud of them for advancing in the spelling bee. Every kid. This isn’t easy.”

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