WASHINGTON -- All but nine of the record 174 champion spellers survived today's first round of the 59th Annual National Spelling Bee, including four contestants making their third appearance at the big spell-off.
The few spellers who missed their first words got a friendly arm-around-the-shoulder from Bee volunteers and were escorted from the huge ballroom as the remaining nervous contestants looked on.
Many of the spellers, dressed in everything from blue jeans to obviously new dresses, breathed a huge sigh of relief after correctly spelling such words as 'lambda, 'jocular,' 'pivotally,' and 'religioso.'
But others tripped up, missing words like 'xeroplastic' and 'rhodium.'
The four third-timers participating in the annual spell-off - Christina Gonzalez representing the San Antonio Express-News; Bindhu Gopalan, sponsored by the Indianapolis News; Kenneth Larson representing the Evening Times, West Palm Beach, Fla., and Karla Miller, sponsored by the Roanoke (Va.) Times & World News -- are joined on the experienced list by 19 spellers who are in the big bee for the second time.
The record 174 participants -- there were 168 last year -- have been sightseeing and generally enjoying themselves around Washington since Sunday -- the official start of 'Bee Week' -- but all that fun ends today with the first word spoken by the official bee 'pronouncer,' Dayton University professor Alex Cameron.
Each participant will get an easy, warm-up word to practice, then it's down to serious spelling.
The participants represent 171 newspaper sponsors from every state as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Pennsylvania has the most sponsoring newspapers with 13. All the contestants have won local contests as a prerequisite to coming to Washington and bested an estimated 8 million to 9 million of their peers.
The competitors range in age from nine to to 14. There are two fourth graders and 99 eighth graders, and the rest fall in between.
Girls outnumber boys 100 to 74 in this year's bee, giving them a good chance of continuing the trend of more female champions. Of the National Spelling Bee winners, 28 have been boys and 33 have been girls. On three occasions, co-champions were declared.
The winner of this year's two-day event gets $1,000, a trophy and several other prizes, along with a plaque for the champion's school. Second prize is $500, third prize is $250 and the fourth through eighth prizes are $100 each. The next 10 finishers get $75 and the remaining 156 spellers take home $50 each.
The bee is sponsored by Scripps-Howard Newspapers, which sent 13 candidates from its newspapers, and 158 other daily, weekly and Sunday newspapers.
The Louisville Courier-Journal started the event as a national competition with nine contestants in 1925. In 1941, Scripps-Howard acquired the rights to the program, but suspended it for the war years of 1943-45.
The spellers, who can ask for definitions of the often obscure words they are given, must satisfy a panel of three judges: retired George Washington University professor Robert Baker, Des Moines schoolteacher Mary Curtin, and Leroy Dilliard, a retired District of Columbia educator who is now a bank executive.