NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — On stage at the National Spelling Bee this week, Cal Alexander was faced with two words with nefarious connotations: one synonymous with embezzlement and the other a term related to morally objectionable material.
But the Shreveport teen sailed through both — “p-e-c-u-l-a-t-e” on Tuesday and “e-x-p-u-r-g-a-t-e” on Wednesday — to land one of 50 finalists spots for the next round, which will air on national television starting Thursday morning. He’s the only one of six students from Louisiana to make it this far this year.
“I’ve been doing my absolute hardest,” Alexander, 14, said after receiving his finalist medal on Wednesday.
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — Synusia. Weltschmerz. Peculate. Satrap. Nubilous. Olecranon.
He said he was already familiar with the words peculate and expurgate, thanks to rigorous studying that also helped him solidify a score on a separate written test that was used to winnow the finalist field from more than 550 contestants this week.
“A lot of it is just the time to study,” Alexander said, estimating his routine is about three hours a day. “I love to be able to learn more about the English language.”
Cal is the only child of Calvin and Kathryn Alexander.
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“They usually push me to take a break,” Alexander quipped. “But they are very supportive.”
This is Alexander’s third trip to the National Spelling Bee and his first time making it this far.
“At this point, I reached my goal of making it to the semifinals,” he said. “I’m going to try my hardest, but I’m not going to die if this is it.”
Alexander has been playing the violin since he was 4 and has soloed with three orchestras. The Caddo Middle Magnet student also has a background in musical theater, but says he sees violin as a possible career choice.
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Over two days Alexander and five other students representing Louisiana correctly spelled synusia, Weltschmerz, peculate, satrap, nubilous, olecranon, cultigen and orotund.
In the end, Isaac Phillips, 14, of Ponchatoula, and Devika Dua, 13, of Ruston, each went without misspelling a word this week, but they didn’t score high enough on the written test to advance.
The words salvageable, Seoul and vagaries foiled three other students, blocking them from advancing further Wednesday morning.
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Zaila Avant-garde, 12, of Harvey, was tripped up by "vagaries," a word that means random actions or notions. The Clover Lane Home School sixth-grader incorrectly spelled it as vagueries.
Alyssa Walker, 14, of Youngsville, misspelled the capital of South Korea, Seoul, as sahoul.
Bre'Ann Washington, 14, of Monroe, misspelled salvageable as salvigable.
The spelling battle has progressively gotten more difficult: Words for the initial round were plucked from a list of 600 that each speller knew ahead of the competition. That opened up on Thursday to any word included in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online.
The pressure increases into the upcoming semifinal rounds, which include scoring on another behind-the-scenes test, as well as turns on the stage that will be televised on ESPN2. About a dozen will advance to the championship round, which will air Thursday at 7 p.m. (central) on ESPN.
In the past two cycles, the Spelling Bee has begun to allow an influx of students who don’t qualify under the normal local and regional spelling bee process, instead allowing some with specific criteria — past winners and others who have shown they are skilled spellers in competitive areas — to pay their own way into the competition. It has meant record numbers of spellers participating, and also prompted some concerns about the influence of money on the decades-running program.
Alexander qualified through the regional process and is sponsored by LSU-Shreveport, so he is not one of the RSVBee spellers, as they are called.