Jacques Bailly, a cartographer of the English language

This article was originally printed in Issue 433 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.


Jacques Bailly is a cartographer of the English language. He won the Scripps National Spelling Bee as a student in 1980 and now serves as the Bee’s official pronouncer. His efforts to tame the wild landscape of English led him to study Latin, French, German and Greek, skills he has also put to good use as an associate professor of classical philosophy at the University of Vermont. In this interview, Professor Bailly was kind enough to share some of his stories, as well as some of the secrets of successful spellers.


Daniel Kilov: You’ve been the official announcer and ‘voice’ of the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2003, but before that you were a competitor and, in fact, won the event in 1980, correct? How did you first develop an interest in competitive spelling? What did your training involve and what was it like to win?


Jacques Bailly: Correct. Back in 1977, my sixth-grade teacher, Sister Eileen, asked me and a few others who did well in language arts if I’d like to be on the school spelling team. Not knowing what it was, I said, ‘sure’. From there, I spent a couple of years memorizing lists of words from spelling bees past.

As I studied, my mother studied how I studied. By the third year, she thought there was a better way. Namely, one should study not just by memorizing words in the hopes that one would get a word one had studied. One should really prepare for the words that one had not seen. To do that, etymology, foreign languages, semantic fields, and generally everything that went into the shape that a word has now had to be studied.

Also, mock spelling bees: open the dictionary and quiz the speller. Give the speller all the info the spelling bee does and see if he or she can sleuth out an intelligent guess, then work to figure out how to hone those guesses into better guesses. The reason why I mention my mother is that she went on to coach another national champion, Molly Dieveney, as well as many national competitors, and then she helped run the Colorado-Wyoming bee. I was going to school in the meantime, and I learned a lot of Latin, French, German, and Greek; in 1981, I wrote to Scripps-Howard and asked if they could use a volunteer with my knowledge. Lucky for me, they could. Thus I was ready and willing when the opening for pronouncer came along.


Daniel Kilov: Do your experiences as a competitor influence how you relate to the competitors for whom you announce?


Jacques Bailly: Of course. I like to think I understand what will help them. I know that I want to help them in every way I am allowed, and I do that to the best of my ability. Also, I just enjoy them, and they seem to respond well to that. It probably helps that they have heard my voice all the year as they study online.


Daniel Kilov: I’ve never had an opportunity to watch a Scripps National Spelling Bee in full, but it doesn’t take more than an afternoon on YouTube to understand why the event is nationally televised. Competitors often display humour and courage on a par with their spelling skills, like when one competitor asked you whether you could use her word in a song or when, in 2003, another kid recovered from a fainting spell to correctly spell their word. What is it about the Bee that produces such alchemy?


Jacques Bailly: Like any competition, the spectator can identify with the competitors in various ways. But these competitors are young, and that adds to the empathy/sympathy and interest. Then there’s the element of luck: the next 50 words might be easy for me, but the word I get is the one that matters, and I might miss it. It’s tense, and there’s a lot of scoring, a lot of tense moments, a lot of relief, a lot of commiseration, and a lot of celebration.


Daniel Kilov: What are the most memorable moments you can recall from your time as competitor and/or announcer?


Jacques Bailly: Well, winning was a big relief and a joy. Relief because we had been on stage for two days straight under hot lights. Joy for all the obvious reasons. I don’t remember who wins from year to year too well, but I remember certain spellers well. Just search for sardoodledom, numnah, alopecoid, and iridocyclitis on YouTube to see some of my favourite moments. But mostly, I just feel such warmth and joy at inspiring and helping these brilliant, interesting young humans strive for excellence.


Daniel Kilov: The last three events (2014, 2015 and 2016), have all ended in a draw, with competitors successfully spelling their way through the entire championship list. Prior to the 2014 event, this was nearly unheard of. Do you think this signals that the kids have suddenly gotten much better? If so, how?


Jacques Bailly: I guess it probably has mostly to do with the structure of the competition: once we moved to a 25-word championship list, it became much more likely that we’d have co-champions. And the spellers really have upped their game; they are spelling such challenging words that we just can’t get them to miss with any word most people have heard of.


Daniel Kilov: Aside from a good memory, what are the key skills of an elite speller?


Jacques Bailly: Memory isn’t just one thing: there is visual memory, conceptual memory, etc. But what really marks a good speller is the one who can keep cool when the speller has never heard of the word and ask all the questions and come up with an intelligent guess that takes advantage of all the information available. Right or wrong, doing that is the best way to improve the odds. Just guessing is not going to work for long; intelligent, informed guessing, done with knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, French, German, Hawaiian, Maori, Spanish, and many more spelling patterns, an ability to see similarities that range from meaning connections to spelling connections to what can’t possibly be right. An elite speller is a linguistic thinker who knows a great deal about all aspects of English vocabulary. But it never hurts to have seen the word, and some words are simply impossible to spell by guessing intelligently. They defy rules. They are one-off instances of weirdness in the language. For those, the only way to know the word is to know the word. I’d give you examples, but as you can imagine, my head is full of words for this year’s Bee, and I can’t talk about those.


Daniel Kilov: Does the ability to spell still matter in the age of electronic spellcheckers? What lessons, if any, do you think the public could learn from the attitudes, techniques, or methods of champion orthographers?


Jacques Bailly: Of course it matters: spellcheck doesn’t know a lot of words, and it is not intelligent. It is a coded program that can only mechanically check things. It cannot really think. But what is more, think about this: no one wins a Nobel Prize in spelling. And yet, learning all of these words opens doors to new realms. Before she ever studies chemistry, astronomy, deconstruction, art history, heraldry, Spanish cuisine, or so many other things, the speller encounters the words for the elements of all those disciplines. Each word is a door to a new phenomenon, but it doesn’t stop there. Each new phenomenon is simply an invitation to keep exploring further. Spelling is a gateway skill. It’s not the goal of life, but it’s ancillary to deciding what one’s goals are, to achieving those goals, and to being an interesting and interested person.


Daniel Kilov: Finally, how does your knowledge of language enhance or animate your everyday experience?


Jacques Bailly: That’s hard to say: it’s like asking me to tell you what it’s like to be a bat. Or what it’s like to have a lateral line, like a fish. We’ve all got language—it’s hard to imagine not having it. Language is one of the ways we think, and however smart a whale or a porpoise or an elephant is, none of them can do metalogic, calculus, relativity theory, Kantianism or art. Knowing more about language is simply knowing more of one of the key fabrics of thought, of what it is to be human. I don’t think I’m anywhere near the most-accomplished person at languages (I know too many people who know so much more than I do), but I know that language has been a key to the things I have accomplished and to many of the things I value in life.

World Memory Championships

An Inside Look



This film takes us inside the strange and fascinating world of competitive memory contests – culminating in the 2007 World Memory Championships in Bahrain.

The documentary speaks for itself but it’s worth pointing out that the sport has grown considerably since this was filmed. World championship events now have hundreds of competitors and the scores achieved here would be considered fairly standard for competent athletes. New techniques continue to be developed and new strategies employed.

From The Archives: The Art of Memory @ AMSA 2018


The Q&A following my talk at AMSA 2018

Late last year I had the privilege of delivering a plenary talk to the 1000 or so attendees of the AMSA National Convention.

From the techniques of modern memory athletes, to the painted mnemonic walls of Campanella’s fictional ‘Città del Sole’, to the encyclopedic memories and mnemonic systems of indigenous cultures around the world, we managed to cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes. I even had time to teach them some mnemonics to remember some bits of the brain! There was also a Q&A at the end.

There is lots of content that I haven’t covered here on the blog before so I thought I’d share. The full talk can be viewed below.

Feliks Zemdegs, Master Speed Solver


Feliks Zemdegs is a big deal in the world of competitive speed-solving. He can unscramble any one of the Rubik’s Cube’s 43 quintillion permutations in less than half the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 metres (his fastest current official time is 4.73 seconds). With almost a hundred world records under his belt, he is an unofficial ambassador for his sport. What is most striking about this 21 year old, however, is his humility and easy-going nature. I asked Feliks to share a little about his experiences as one of the world’s greatest mental athletes.


How did you first get interested in speed solving? What is it about the Rubik’s Cube that so captured your interest?

I first got interested in speed-cubing when I came across a bunch of speed-cubing videos and tutorials whilst browsing YouTube one day. I’d previously played with a Rubik’s Cube (but didn’t really get anywhere with it), and I was amazed that people could not only solve the cube, but also solve it at incredible speeds. Being generally interested in puzzles and games, I decided to buy a Cube and learn how to solve it with an online tutorial.


What do you find most interesting about the Rubik’s Cube today?

I find it very interesting that the Rubik’s Cube continues to grow and grow in popularity—and that despite being a pop culture icon for so many years, still has a huge place in the world today. The growth of speed-cubing has certainly played a role in its rejuvenation, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. It’s hard to say whether speed-cubing will ever become mainstream, probably not, but I think it will continue to grow for a while to come.


Can you describe the methods you use in competition?

For the standard 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, I use the CFOP method. CFOP stands for Cross, F2L, OLL, and PLL, which are the four main stages of this solving method. Essentially, this method solves the cube in layers—the cross and F2L stages solve the first two layers of the cube, and I do this intuitively. The last layer of the cube is solved using algorithms, and generally in two stages—orienting and then permuting the last layer pieces. I don’t always follow this exact process, and I know a bunch of supplementary algorithm sets and intuitive solving techniques that I use in addition to the basic CFOP method.


Can you describe what’s going on inside your head during a solve? What are you focusing on or thinking about (if anything at all)?

When I’m solving the cube, it’s pretty much completely subconscious—I’m just executing a process that I’ve practised time and time again. Of course, no two solves are the same, each solve is completely different, but I use the same fundamental process each time, which is why I don’t need to think about it. With enough practice, speed-cubers can rely on their recognition skills and muscle memory to do a solve, whilst doing very little active thinking or problem solving.


In the same vein, is there a difference as to what’s going on inside your head during a competition performance versus a practice session?

Definitely—I generally get pretty nervous at competitions, even after all these years. I try to make my solving as automatic and subconscious as possible, because as soon as you actually start thinking or analysing too much during a solve, mistakes will happen. I have a couple of things I try and do to counter nerves and shaky hands, such as taking a deep breath before the solve, and making sure my grip on the cube is solid and doesn’t slip.


In an interview, you gave about your performance at the 2015 World Rubik’s Cube Championships, you said that you recognized after the fact that you’d made a mistake. Did you mean that you realized only after you finished the solve or after you’d moved the piece?

Ah yes, on the third solve in the finals (actually my fastest solve), I could have saved about 10 moves on the solve if I recognised a certain last layer case and executed it in one algorithm. Instead I performed two algorithms (although they were two very easy and fast cases).


New records seem to get set every competition—you’ve broken over 70 world records yourself, right? What drives this progress? Is it the development of more efficient methods or algorithms? New and better finger tricks? Sheer volume of practice or something else?

Right now, I’ve actually broken 94 world records in official competitions—I’m almost at the century! Certainly, there will come a time when progression in world records slows down and the fastest solves are very difficult to beat. In the early part of this decade, records were certainly driven by individual practice and method development; however, you don’t need to know hundreds of algorithms to solve the cube at world-class speed. Equally as important was the development of better cubing hardware. There are a bunch of companies in China that continue to produce and enhance speed-cubing technology and create awesome speed-cubes that deliver better and better performance.


What recommendations would you make to someone new to speed-solving who wanted to improve? What do you think is the most important thing that most people fail to focus on in their practice? Do you think there is anything many cubers spend too much time on?

Like with many other things, it’s important to have good fundamentals and good technique before you go all out with practice to try and improve. The improvement process in speed-cubing involves learning techniques, algorithms, and developing good habits, and then grinding practice to implement those in your solves and get faster. I think the most important thing people fail to do is actually take a step back and self-evaluate. This can take the form of videoing yourself and then recognising what the weaknesses in your solves are, and then doing deliberate practice to improve those components. This is something that can be applied to many things, not just speed-cubing. I think most speed-cubers are actually pretty decent at practice, but sometimes cubers spend too much time doing heaps and heaps of speed-solves without thinking about whether what they’re doing will actually help their solves.


What’s the funniest, strangest, or most memorable story you have from a speed solving competition?

Haha, I really should have a list of these written down somewhere, because whenever I get asked this question I don’t have a good answer—even though there are probably many things! One guy actually said that he would legitimately get a tattoo of my signature on his ass if I was willing to sign it—we discussed it for a few minutes and then decided not to proceed with that plan, lol.


Are there any ways in which you feel like your cubing skills have informed or influenced other aspects of your life? Relatedly, what do you think the average person could gain from learning how to solve a cube?

The biggest lesson I have learned is that practice is the key to just about anything. Things don’t often come quickly and easily without a lot of hard work and dedication. I apply this to other things including my studies and occasionally work and other pursuits. I know that if I put in the work and do it in an intelligent manner then I can trust that I’ll get, for example, good results in my exams and other things like that. Being a world champion also opens doors to some cool opportunities both inside and outside the speed-cubing world—I’ve been lucky enough to travel and compete in Rubik’s Cube competitions on all six continents!


The main skills that people can develop by learning how to solve the Rubik’s Cube are things like pattern recognition, memory, patience, finger dexterity, spatial awareness and general problem-solving ability.


What do you wish more people knew about Rubik’s Cubing?

That anyone can do it! You don’t have to be good at maths or physics or puzzles—all you need to solve a Rubik’s Cube is a bit of time and patience! To learn a beginner’s method for solving the cube, you just need to be able to follow some instructions and a process. After that, you develop and improve your techniques—once you understand what you’re doing it becomes a lot more fun!

From The Archives: House of Wellness ft. Daniel Kilov


Fellow mnemonists,

I thought I had this post scheduled to publish last week but I must have done something wrong. Here it is, a little late!

This week, I’m sharing an interview I did for an Australian TV show called ‘House of Wellness’. In this clip, I teach the host the method of loci (or memory palace), a fundamental technique in the Art of Memory. We used actual rooms and physical objects to make it obvious what’s going on.

Although only one room is shown in this clip, Ed actually memorised three rooms, each with 12 items for his final test and scored 100 percent.

Here is a brief summary of the show from their website: “Welcome to The House of Wellness show – your weekly slice of TV goodness that helps you live, look, and feel well. Hosted by Ed Phillips and Zoe Marshall, with regular appearances from Resident Pharmacist Gerald Quigley, we explore the world of health and wellbeing, addressing your health concerns in an entertaining, interactive and informative format. From raising your kids, to staying fit, ageing gracefully, and keeping beautiful inside and out, as well as the A to Z of every vitamin under the sun, The House of Wellness is designed with one thing in mind – to help you ‘Live Well’.”

The full episode can be found here: https://www.houseofwellness.com.au/sh…

A New Years Resolution

Child Genius screenshot.png

Happy new year everyone!

I didn’t post much in 2018. But I’m committing now to posting at least once a week in 2019! Each week I’ll share a video, article or interview centred around memory and other mental skills.

To get the ball rolling, here is an episode of Child Genius I appeared in late last year. In addition to appearing as a guest judge, I also designed the memory rounds for this season.

These kids are extremely impressive. It’s all worth watching but the memory rounds begin at around the 30 minute mark.

SBS offers the following summary of the show:

Presided over by quizmaster Dr Susan Carland, Child Genius follows Australia’s cleverest 7 to 12 year-olds and their extraordinary families as they compete for the title of Australia’s brightest child.

I can’t embed the video but the full episode can be found by clicking below: