OXON HILL, MD - For Arvind Mahankali, 13, of Bayside Hills, N.Y., third time was the, well, periapt. That's charm to most people. After finishing third two years in a row, Arvind, an eighth-grader, came back strong to win the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday night.
And for the first time since 2008, a boy was named champion.
Arvind correctly spelled "knaidel," a small mass of leavened dough, in the 16 th round to capture the elusive crown.
Pranav Sivakumar, 13, finished second, spelling out on "cyanophycean."
Pranav, an eighth-grader from Tower Lakes, Ill., loves astronomy and astrophysics.
The 11 finalists represented 1 millionth of 1 percent of the spellers who began the competition at their local bees.
Throughout the evening tensions were high both onstage and in the audience.
Nikitha Chandran, the third speller in the final's first round was knocked out by "pathognomonic," a word meaning characteristic of a particular disease.
Then Vismaya Kharkar, 14, of Bountiful, Utah, had the crowd holding its breath as she appeared to struggle with "sciomancy," divination by consulting the shades of the dead, then nailed it.
In the second final round, Christal Schermeister, 13, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., went down with "doryline," large migratory tropical ants.
Before the finals got underway, Vanya Shivashankar, 11, said she sought out advice from her sister, Kavya, the 2009 national winner.
"She was just telling me to do the best I could and to just have fun," she said.
Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., who won a deserved place as the Bee's class clown, said she went into the finals "a little bit nervous." It's her fourth appearance in the nationals.
"A couple of my friends said I would make it, and I said, ‘No, I'm not going to make it,' but I did," she said.
Third-year repeater Pranav Sivakumar, 13, of Tower Lakes, Ill., said he didn't study as much as he has this year "because I wasn't really expecting to get this far in previous years. But this year, I'm really going for it."
Spellers in Thursday's afternoon semifinals went down on such obscure terms as "hyetometer," a rain gauge; "ignimbrite," rock made of volcanic ash; "Diplodocus," a herbaceous dinosaur; "amimia," loss of ability to communicate by gestures; "morosoph," a learned fool; "polytocous," producing many offspring at one time; and "pancratiast," a contestant in an ancient Greek athletic contest involving boxing and wrestling. Often, it was clear a speller knew the word and missed by only one letter.
Semifinalists advanced with such doozies as "peristalith," a ring of upright stones; "persiflage," frivolous banter; "graminivorous," feeding on grass; "flaneur," an intellectual trifler; "bilboquet," a game with ball and string; "dasyphyllous," having woolly leaves; and, a favorite of the audience, "smellfungus," one given to fault-finding.
Round Five knocked 10 spellers from the competition. Round Six felled the remainder of the 42 semifinalists to a group of 18. After considering scores from a computer-based test all semifinalists took Wednesday night, the group was reduced to the 11 finalists.\
Some spellers clearly sought to stand out in the national spotlight. Amber from Massachusetts wore yellow fingernail polish. Hannah Citsay of Lititz, Pa., paraded elaborate braids. Some wrote invisible words with fingers on their hands or placards, while some closed their eyes, grimaced, or stared blankly into the cameras.
Several contestants engaged in a bit of persiflage with the Bee's official word pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a classics professor at the University of Vermont. In one exchange, Eva Kitlen, 14, of Niwot, Colo., asked, "Can I maybe have a different word?" Bailly responded, "I hope you'll get another word." But it was not to be. She was removed by "cabotinage," a word referring to bad play-acting.
The ballroom audience at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, south of Washington, was treated to brief videos during the televised commercial breaks of some of the contestants in their home and school environments or displaying skills such as swimming, tap-dancing, playing musical instruments or, in one case, removing eyeglasses with her feet.
Rich Boehne, board chairman, president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Co., has attended 25 national bees. He said much has changed.
"But one thing that doesn't change is our commitment to literacy and education. That's why Scripps does it … We run it as a not-for-profit. I told the sponsors (Thursday) morning that I guess, technically, we own it, but we really see it as an obligation of stewardship, and it's our job to nurture it and support it and protect it and help it grow … When you look at the stage, I think it's a wonderful picture of America."
The Bee attracts a wide variety of spectators, not just friends and family. Shalini Shankar, associate professor of anthropology with the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, is studying the "mass-mediated spectacle" of the Bee on a National Science Foundation grant.
She said she's interested in "why it is that South Asian children especially have really thrived in this environment in the last 15 years or so. I think nine of the last 13 champions have been of South Asian descent. Since it's a culture that tends to value the sciences more, it's interesting to think: Why are language arts becoming prestigious?"