The Odylic Octochamps.

I don’t normally cover the Scripps National Spelling Bee, even though I participated in spelling bees as a wee lad (I still remember the humiliation of misspelling Christmas — I knew it, I swear, it was just a brain glitch!), but occasionally it brings up a word of particular interest which leads to a LH post. In 2016, for instance, one of the words was chremslach, the plural of chremsel, which led to a lively discussion (we never did decide on the etymology). This year there has been a lot of excited coverage of the remarkable eight-way tie, with much use of the term “octochamps”; here, for example, is the Atlantic piece by LH fave Ben Zimmer, which begins:

The sight of eight co-champions hoisting the ceramic trophy at the Scripps National Spelling Bee last night was a remarkable ending to a competition that the ESPN announcers kept referring to as “historic” and “unprecedented.” This year’s Bee was certainly one for the history books: There had never been more than two spellers sharing the top honor before this. Those elite eight—quickly dubbed the “Octochamps”—will be remembered for irrevocably altering the competition. A recent documentary on competitive spelling (particularly focusing on the dominance of Indian American kids in recent years) is titled Breaking the Bee. The Octochamps actually broke it this time.

Zimmer commendably gives all eight winning words, with definitions:

Rishik Gandhasri of San Jose, California, spelled auslaut (the final sound in a word or syllable). Erin Howard of Huntsville, Alabama, spelled erysipelas (an acute skin infection). Saketh Sundar of Clarksville, Maryland, spelled bougainvillea (a tropical woody vine with brilliant flowers). Shruthika Padhy of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, spelled aiguillette (a military shoulder cord). Sohum Sukhatankar of Dallas spelled pendeloque (a pear-shaped glass pendant). Abhijay Kodali of Flower Mound, Texas, spelled palama (webbing on the feet of aquatic birds). Christopher Serrao of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, spelled cernuous (drooping, as a flower). And Rohan Raja of Irving, Texas, spelled odylic (relating to a hypothetical life force conceived in the 19th century). Cue the confetti.

I’m a little surprised that erysipelas and bougainvillea are considered difficult and/or obscure enough to be final tie-breakers — I think of them as fairly ordinary words — but palama (initial stress, from Greek palamē ‘palm’) certainly is (it’s not in the OED, though of course it’s in M-W, the official dictionary of the bee), as is odylic, which is the reason I’m posting today: you won’t find it in many places, but you know if it you were reading LH in 2002!


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’m a little surprised that erysipelas and bougainvillea are considered difficult and/or obscure enough to be final tie-breakers — I think of them as fairly ordinary words

    I wouldn’t have known erysipelas, but I was amazed that bougainvillea was considered difficult. For anyone who has lived in places where it grows it is very much an everyday word. I suppose people who suffer from erysipelas regard it as an everyday word, but I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly met such a person.

  2. ktschwarz says

    Cernuous was featured here as well. Could Language Hat be the winners’ secret weapon?

  3. AJP Crown says

    I’m not sure I could spell bougainvillea right even though I’ve known the name for most of my life and know the origin etc. (I’m not a good speller). Isn’t it about the discrepancy between the spelling and the pronunciation? You could quite easily go wrong at each set of vowels.

    …it was first published as ‘Buginvillæa’ in Genera Plantarum by A. L. de Jussieu in 1789.[4] The genus was subsequently spelled in several ways until it was finally established as “Bougainvillea” in the Index Kewensis in the 1930s.

  4. Interesting. “Od” sounds like a western sorta incarnation of the eastern “qi” (which recently reared its head in the retraction blogosphere).

  5. Cernuous was featured here as well. Could Language Hat be the winners’ secret weapon?

    Good catch, and I’d like to think so!

  6. Owlmirror says

    “you know if it you”?

  7. Erysipelas occurs, in pronunciation spelling, in Huckleberry Finn.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Auslaut aside, the only one I knew is bougainvillea, except I have no idea how it’s pronounced in English!

    the eastern “qi” (which recently reared its head in the retraction blogosphere)

    Interesting. Link, please?

  9. Yeah, I have no idea what the retraction blogosphere even is.

  10. (And was afraid to ask.)

  11. I say /ˌbʊgǝnˈvɪlɪjə/.

  12. John Cowan says

    I think it’s bloggers who collectively watch for and publicize the retraction of papers from journals.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Sure. but qi doesn’t currently appear on the first page of Retraction Watch, and I don’t know which specific other blog it could be on.

  14. John Cowan says

    That was addressed to Hat, who didn’t know what retraction blogosphere meant.

  15. And I thank you.

  16. Erysipelas is no fun, but I didn’t know the word before I got it. (Though I’d heard the Danish name rosen I didn’t know what it was either).

  17. jdmartinsen says

    I don’t think it’s come to an actual retraction yet, but I suspect Sili might be referring to last week’s Twitter thread from Elisabeth Bik on a series of papers purportedly demonstrating that “External Qi therapy” performed by one Yan Xin kills cancer cells.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Wow, what a long-running series of clear-cut failures of peer review. I have to suspect a peer-review ring.

  19. Anybody remember this scholarly scandal?

  20. @languagehat: This link in that post is dead, but works.

  21. Thanks, I’ll change the link at the post.

  22. Indeed, according to G-ngrams, erysipelas and bougainvillea are in another league than the other six.
    Erysipelas used to be much more popular (the word, not the disease, though if some affliction is frequent maybe we can call it “popular”) , with maximum around 1880. Bougainvillea has recently moved ahead of the pack.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    “Erysipelas” was in its day not only well-known as a word, but one which doctors avoided saying in front of their patients; in the pre-antibiotic era it was very frequently fatal.

    (I see that Wikipedia actually provides a roll-call of famous victims. Tutankhamun seems to have used it to wreak his revenge on the Tomb Raiders.)

  24. George Grady says

    “Erysipelas occurs, in pronunciation spelling, in Huckleberry Finn.”

    I dunno about Huckleberry Finn, but Twain does refer to it in Roughing It:

    The mountain side was so steep that the entire town had a slant to it like a roof. Each street was a terrace, and from each to the next street below the descent was forty or fifty feet. The fronts of the houses were level with the street they faced, but their rear first floors were propped on lofty stilts; a man could stand at a rear first floor window of a C street house and look down the chimneys of the row of houses below him facing D street. It was a laborious climb, in that thin atmosphere, to ascend from D to A street, and you were panting and out of breath when you got there; but you could turn around and go down again like a house a-fire—so to speak. The atmosphere was so rarified, on account of the great altitude, that one’s blood lay near the surface always, and the scratch of a pin was a disaster worth worrying about, for the chances were that a grievous erysipelas would ensue. But to offset this, the thin atmosphere seemed to carry healing to gunshot wounds, and therefore, to simply shoot your adversary through both lungs was a thing not likely to afford you any permanent satisfaction, for he would be nearly certain to be around looking for you within the month, and not with an opera glass, either.

  25. The Huck Finn quote (chapter 28):

    “Only think of that, now! What’s the matter with her?”

    I couldn’t think of anything reasonable, right off that way, so I says:


    “Mumps your granny! They don’t set up with people that’s got the mumps.”

    “They don’t, don’t they? You better bet they do with these mumps. These mumps is different. It’s a new kind, Miss Mary Jane said.”

    “How’s it a new kind?”

    “Because it’s mixed up with other things.”

    “What other things?”

    “Well, measles, and whooping-cough, and erysiplas, and consumption, and yaller janders, and brain-fever, and I don’t know what all.”

    “My land! And they call it the mumps?”

    “That’s what Miss Mary Jane said.”

    “Well, what in the nation do they call it the mumps for?”

    “Why, because it is the mumps. That’s what it starts with.”

    “Well, ther’ ain’t no sense in it. A body might stump his toe, and take pison, and fall down the well, and break his neck, and bust his brains out, and somebody come along and ask what killed him, and some numskull up and say, ‘Why, he stumped his toe.’ Would ther’ be any sense in that? No. And ther’ ain’t no sense in this, nuther. Is it ketching?”

  26. Owlmirror says

    “yaller janders,” == “yellow jaundice”, which seems a bit redundant. Perhaps he would also say “blue cyanosis” and “red rosacea”.

    (white albinism? black melanism? orange carotenosis?)

  27. Just shows that the protagonist doesn’t know the etymology of the diseases.

  28. PlasticPaddy says
  29. John Cowan says

    Perhaps that’s why black bile was considered one of the four bodily humors along with yellow bile, giving us the temperament adjectives melancholic, choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic.

  30. Rodger C says

    The problem is that “black bile” is notoriously a mysterious phrase with no clear referent. I suspect it was invented for color symmetry: blood is red, bile is (yellowish-)green, phlegm is white, and … uh, something must be black.

  31. When the very ill vomited up partially digested blood, that was often interpreted as black bile. It is also possible to get other black fluids (again, usually blood derived) out of severely ill or already dead bodies, and these could likewise be identified with black bile.

  32. Rodger C says

    Thanks. Still sounds to me like “Oh, there it is!”

  33. jdmartinsen has it. There’s a write-up here:

    The Dickens-Dostoevsky hoax was referenced recently because of the poor researcher who misunderstood a technical legal term when writing about Victorian attitudes to homosexuality.

  34. @Sili: The continued ability of Naomi Wolf to get people to take her seriously is astonishing. She has well over a decade of pure crackpottery under her belt. Remember George W. Bush’s Blackwater-led fascist coup? Neither do I.

Speak Your Mind