I confess, I've never understood the allure of spelling bees. I mean sure, they can be compelling enough as entertainment, but (and I say this as someone who is a good speller) who cares if you can memorize a bunch of obscure words? To me, if they're not a part of your vocabulary - if you can't use them, because no one would know what the hell you're talking about - the value of those words is limited. As such, I'm delighted to hear about this.
Now that spelling bees have been turned into a hit Broadway show and crossword puzzles into a movie, the publishers of the American Heritage Dictionary are hoping to create a cultural moment with a competitive game about definitions.
Dictionary publishers typically send out news releases highlighting new entries -- "blogosphere," "instant messaging" and "shout-out" are recent examples -- but struggle to find other ways to get attention.
"I think everyone publicizes new words, so I want to go beyond that," said Taryn Roeder, 32, who as Houghton Mifflin's assistant director of publicity promotes the American Heritage Dictionaries reference line.
So this year Houghton Mifflin created -- and trademarked -- the Define-a-Thon, which is modeled after a spelling bee but instead asks contestants to match words to definitions (and gives them a helpful list of words to choose from). The publisher has dispatched Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor at American Heritage, to hold events across the country.
On a recent Thursday night in Cambridge, Mass., about 225 people filed into the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square to watch a Define-a-Thon. After two heats of 20 contestants each, the finalists were Brandy Jones, a community design planner who picked the correct word for definitions like the ringing or sounding of bells ("tintinnabulation"), and Katherine Bryant, a science textbook editor, whose definitions included head-scratchers like the right to use and enjoy someone else's property without harming it ("usufruct").
A three-time finalist in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Emily Stagg, was a featured competitor in the movie Spellbound who inspired the Define-a-Thon, according to Roeder, the American Heritage publicist. In an opinion column in the New York Times last May, she wrote, "Why don't we make the National Spelling Bee a 'definitions bee,' where competitors need to know primarily what words mean rather than simply how to spell them?"
By the way, for anyone else who thinks that what words are used for is more interesting than what they look like, I recommend the radio show Says You!, which runs on KHOU here Saturdays at 11, which is to say following Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!. Unfortunately, they don't have a free podcast like Wait Wait does, so I don't always get to hear it in a given week. But if you like words, and especially if you enjoy the occasional vile pun, it's a great listen.Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 02, 2007 to Society and cultcha