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First word on 23: Mon Schools spelling bee is next month

Joe Paull, the late educator and community activist, used to patiently spell it out.

“It’s not easy,” Paull once told The Dominion Post. “You’re in the arena, in front of a bunch of strangers, doing something that’s not easy to do.”

Paull was talking about the spelling bee, where generations of elementary students and middle-schoolers have been gathering and working through words in earnest since 1925.

That was the year a Kentucky newspaper first launched an official competition for lexicon-minded youngsters in the Bluegrass State.

Now, nearly 100 years later, the bee is a bona fide American intellectual event, with the national finals held in Washington, D.C., with all that media coverage.

Newspapers from across the country, with guest columns from the finalists in the readership area.

Social media.


And more.

The 2023 edition of the bee for Monongalia County Schools is next month.

It will be Jan. 11 in the school district’s central offices in Sabraton. The competition is set for 2 p.m. that day, organizers said.

Paull, meanwhile, pronounced the words for Mon’s bees and others across north-central West Virginia for three decades. He died in 2020.

With more than 1 million words (and counting) in the English vocabulary, that’s a lot of words Paull pronounced during his run.

Words owing their origins to Latin and Old English, with Dutch derivatives and carryovers from French and Yiddish.

Words such as “cooperage,” “umlaut,” “penitent,” “portentously” and “ichor” — all of which have been fielded by Mon’s spellers in bees over the years.

(You know: Ichor. The ethereal stuff taking the place of blood in the veins of the gods of Greek mythology.)

Then there are the words, just because of the way they sound, that have been known to make competitors bust up laughing in past bees.

“Babushka,” for example, reduced one Mon speller to a 90-second giggling fit, before he recovered to spell it — correctly.

One mom in the audience for that round was still talking about her sister, who tanked on her first word in her first bee 20 years before.

Said word was one of those you think know how to spell — until you’re called upon to spell it in a spelling bee.


“To this day, if that word comes up in conversation, she’ll repeat it, and go, ‘l-a-c-k-a-d-a-i-s-i-c-a-l,’” that mom said. “You don’t forget.”

In today’s time of low reading scores and seemingly no reading fluency, some educators are saying it’s the opposite.

The repetition and learning by rote, they worry, can only make for fleeting moments of shakily acquired knowledge.

Moments, they say, that are gone — just as soon as the kid takes the trophy or slinks to his seat, defeated in the first round.

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

Prepping for the bee does help with reading fluency, he’d say.

Besides, he’d continue, there’s the etymology, history, anthropology and sociology of the endeavor — all wrapped up in one word.

Spelling bees foster self-esteem, critical thinking and deductive reasoning, he added.

And, he said, having something other than ichor running through your veins can only help.

Competitors couldn’t be more alone on stage, he said, even with a roomful of spectators in the audience.

No spell-checker or dictionary app either, he said.

“Think about that.”

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