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?”

Amen, sister. I think that would have a lot more value. And I’m totally going to use the word “usufruct” in a sentence sometime this year.

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.

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One Response to Define-A-Thon

  1. Patrick says:

    As part of my morning routine, I like to go to for the free word game of the day as my first stop on the internet. (Off the Kuff is stop #2) They have 4 or 5 different puzzles that rotate daily. One is based on spelling but the other are more definition or word origin oriented.

    Off to Deb (stop #3).

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