NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- After two preliminary rounds of on-stage spelling Wednesday that was by turns heart-wrenching, amusing and inspiring, 46 contestants made it through to the semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Among the semifinalists are last year's third-place finisher, 14-year-old Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., and fifth-place finisher, 12-year-old Vanya Shivashankar from Olathe, Kan. Joseph Cusi Delamerced, a 14-year-old from Cincinnati who tied for 12th place in 2013, also made the cut for the semifinals this year.
The competition Wednesday featured 281 spellers from across the country and around the world. Some spelled words with their fingers on their hand or in the air, some motioned as if they were typing on a virtual keyboard, while others clenched their eyes shut as if looking for the answers on the inside of their eyelids.
A collective sigh could be heard when spellers were eliminated when they missed words like "menhaden" (a type of fish), "citronella" (an oil used as insecticide) and "verbigeration" (continual repetition of stereotyped phrases). Applause followed each spelling. Laughter often rang out when pronouncer Jacques Bailly used words in humorous sentences — for "odyssey" he talked about getting lost in Costco for 35 minutes.
"I know the word, but can you use it in a funny sentence please?" joked 15-year-old Jacob Williamson of Cape Coral, Florida, who went on to spell "raconteur" correctly.
A majority of the contestants made it through the on-stage spelling without missteps but were eliminated based on their scores in a written spelling and vocabulary test they took Tuesday. The semifinalists will participate in two more rounds of on-stage spelling Thursday. Based on how they do on stage and another written test, roughly a dozen contestants are chosen to spell in the finals that evening.
On Wednesday, the Maryland ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center was packed with family members, spellers and others the bee dubbed "spellebrities" — past bee champions and alumni. Both 2009 champ Kavya Shivashankar and 2010 winner Anamika Veeramani were cheering on siblings this year.
More than 70 spellers had competed in previous bees and their confidence was clear. Case in point, 11-year-old Iowan Zander Reed. The 2013 bee veteran needed no definition or etymology or sentence for his word, "Holstein" (breed of cow).
"Holstein. H-o-l-s-t-e-i-n, Holstein," he said, before flashing a broad grin when a judge said "correct."
The youngest speller this year was 8-year-old Hussain Godhrawala from Barnwell, S.C., who correctly spelled "gingham" and "unguiculate" (having nails or claws) but did not make the semifinals. The oldest was Jacob, the jokester from Cape Coral, Fla., who correctly spelled his second on-stage word "impasto" (thick application of a pigment to a canvas) and made it to the semifinals.
The comedic moments were intentional — bee officials said that they have hired a pair of comedy writers in recent years to help come up with humorous sentences.
"I think the objective is probably just to cut the tension," Bailly told reporters.
There are a few notable differences in this year's bee. A judge told contestants "correct" when they spelled a word right. In the past, a judge would simply nod. Bee officials said they thought it would be more helpful for the successful spellers to have the audible cue.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference, though, is the bell sound signaling an incorrect spelling. The sound is a dull "tink" rather than the distinctive "ring" of previous bees. That's because Mary Brooks, the head judge who normally brings the signature bell, had a family emergency and couldn't attend this week.
"It was yesterday that we realized that we didn't have Mary's special bell with that special sound that we wanted," explained Paige Kimble, executive director of the bee.
But the buzzy excitement remained the same, and Kimble couldn't help noting how playful and exuberant some of the spellers have been. "I'd like my mom to take a deep breath," joked 14-year-old New Yorker Buddy Noorlander, who went on to misspell "spirulina" (a type of microscopic bacteria) but smiled and thanked the judges before leaving the stage.
"The cute quotient is off the chart this year," Kimble gushed.
ESPN will broadcast the finals live starting at 8 p.m. EDT Thursday. For a full listing of spellers and semifinalists, go to spellingbee.com.