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.

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