WASHINGTON -- Balu Natarajan, 13, whose family still speaks their native Indian, Tamil, at home and the winner of this year's National Spelling Bee, is a confident youth who almost always spells without hesitation.
'If I know a word, that's usually how I operate,' Natarajan said Thursday after correctly spelling the French-derived word 'milieu' to beat Kate Lingley, 13, of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, who stumbled on the word 'farrago' -- meaning a confusing mixture or hodgepodge - misspelling it 'ferrago.'
'It's fantastic. Good for him,' said Natarajan's father Chanda, a management consultant who immigrated to the United States from India 15 years ago and who still speaks Tamil with his wife and two sons at home.
Natarajan, of Bolingbrook, Ill., calls the family language 'Tinglish.'
The two youngsters dueled through only three words in the 14th and final round of the 58th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee that brought 168 champion spellers to the nation's capital to pit wits and memories against the dictionary.
Natarajan credited experience -- this was his third trip to the finals -- and luck for his winning performance. 'Last year I might have missed it,' he said.
During the two days of competition, Natarajan successfully spelled dormitories, mellifluous, umlaut, genre, beneficence, puissance, rheumatoid, diaphragm, kulak, dilatoriness, chamberlain, pegasus, and judaize before correctly spelling farrago and milieu to capture the championship and $1,000 in prize money.
'I didn't believe it,' he said of his immediate reaction to winning.
Which word was the hardest? 'The last one,' he said.
The final rounds began with 61 the record 168 who began the spelldown Wednesday when the field was cut down Thursday in two difficult morning sessions.
Other runnersup, all eighth-graders, were in order of finish: Tanya Solomon, 13, of Kansas City, Mo., who was felled by the grammatical term 'syllepsis;' Mitsuko Igarashi, 14, of Memphis, Tenn., who was ousted by the Italian-derived word 'borsalino;' and, Charles Lewis, 14, of Gettysburg, Pa., who was felled by the word 'obvolute.'
During the two-day contest, the 168 spellers spelled -- or misspelled -- a record 719 words.
As the difficulty mounted Thursday, some of the tension was eased by humor.
'Can you give me an easier one?' Kit Condill, 12, a sixth-grader from Arthur, Ill., quipped as pronouncer Alex Cameron asked him to spell 'hibachi.'
After a careful inspection of the ceiling, a look at the judges and then back to Cameron, Condill finally -- a question mark hanging in his voice -- spelled the word correctly.
When Lori Miller, 14, Savannah, Mo., was stumped by the word 'madras' and had to leave the stage, she said, to loud applause, 'Hey, look. I made top eight. Who cares (about losing)?'