The winner of the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee will be crowned tonight, and all the pomp will be broadcast live on ABC. But it's worth wondering whether the Scripps bee still merits such publicity while the estimable National Geographic Bee (held last week, and hosted by Alex Trebek) goes relatively unnoticed. The National Geographic Society recently released a survey showing that 60 percent of college-age Americans can't find Iraq on a map, and half can't find New York state. But rather than educate our students by emphasizing words with geographic and real historical value-Peloponnesus, say, or Djibouti-the spelling bee chooses shamelessly to tout its own passé-ness. Thus, words such as pelisse (use in a sentence: "Your great grandmother called; she wants her pelisse back.") and retinue (welcome to the 21st century, Scripps-try "entourage") are the norm. So while Chinese and Indian engineers and cartographers come to dominate the global markets, Americans of Chinese and Indian descent will be left behind, spelling their way into irrelevance. A peccadillo? More like sesquipedalian treason.
"War of the Worlds," by Charles Passy, New York Times, May 26, 2006