WASHINGTON - Bright and early at 8:03 a.m., 14-year-old James Bailey of Scottsboro, Ala., stepped to the microphone and confidently spelled 'magenta,' and the Scripps National Spelling Bee was under way.
James was the first of a record 288 spellers in the 81st annual bee, all of whom received their one guaranteed moment in the spotlight in Thursday's preliminary round. There was the familiar mix of moments comical and nerve-racking as boys and girls ages 8 to 15 tackled words such as 'ambuscade' and 'Manhattanese.'
'Can you use it in a song?' asked 12-year-old Marie Mach of Dumfries, Va., when presented with the word 'espousal.'
'You really don't want me to,' replied pronouncer Jacques Bailly with a chuckle. 'I can't sing.'
Marie misspelled the word, guessing 'e-s-p-o-w-s-e-l.'
A correct spelling counted as extra credit to a written test all the spellers had taken earlier in the week. The top 90 scorers advanced to the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon, the next step on the way to the nationally televised finals tonight.
Neither James nor Marie advanced, but all the returning favorites did.
Tia Thomas, back for her fifth and final bee after finishing eighth last year, received a familiar 'Hi, Tia' from Bailly as she approached the microphone. The 13-year-old from Coarsegold, Calif., dispatched 'elucidate' with no problem, her smile revealing that she knew she had spelled the word correctly before the judges confirmed it.
Tia's chief competition for the title, 13-year-old Matthew Evans of Albuquerque, N.M., later breezed through 'somniloquist.' Matthew placed sixth last year, the best finish among those who returned for this year's bee.
Tia and Matthew, the only five-time participants at this year's bee, have developed a competitive but friendly rivalry, quizzing each other weekly via computer. They spent a Tuesday night dinner and part of Wednesday trying to stump each other with words from their thick study books.
'Actually, he is the person that I'm most anxious to beat this year,' Tia said.