Friday, May 29, 2009

The Word Nerd Sez: M is for ...




Two words? you may be wondering. Or maybe just plain, What the heck language are you talking? Well, if you were watching the finals of the National Spelling Bee last night, you'd know these were the words that tripped up the second- and third-place finishers, leaving a 13-year-old Kansas girl to win with the word Laodicean (which my Webster's defines as "lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics, taken from the reproach of the Laodiceans in Revelations).

I watched the last six rounds of the spelling bee, and I have to admit that of the last 21 words, I only could spell two of them: Caerphilly, a Welsh cheese, and guayabera, a type of Latin American shirt. Even worse, I only even recognized two of the other words that were used.

One of those words was menhir, which means "a single upright rude monolith, usually of prehistoric origin." I think I've actually seen one, near Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, but I couldn't think of the correct spelling before the TV flashed it on the screen. If pressed, I might have gotten it, but the French origin might have thrown me.

As for Maecenas, meaning "a generous patron, especially of literature or art," I went the same way as the kid who misspelled it, starting it m-y-c- instead of m-a-e-c. I hadn't heard of this word, but I recalled the Mycenaean people of the Bronze Age Mediterranean. Maecenas is from Latin, though, so that should have been a tip-off. It would have been for the winner, who clearly knew her word derivations, and used them to get the right spelling even if she didn't recognize the word.

Perhaps if I hadn't been affected by nerves during my own middle-school spelling bee, I would have thrown myself into studying word origins and language roots. But after winning the eighth-grade division, nerves led me to stutter during the all-school bee, and say an extra letter when I didn't mean to. Tragedy! Or maybe not; now looking at words is a fun distraction for me, and not the focus of study and stress and competition. I'm amazed at all the kids who competed, and hope the love of words lasts them a lifetime.


  1. Maecenas = what I say to my mother when I don't want her to miss something ("mayaseeinis?")

    Menhir? = what I used to ask at parties