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Opening Arguments

Guerdon-variety words

After every National Spelling Bee, it is required that at least one witty columnist write a piece making fun of all the exotic words that pop up by using every single one of them in a "We don't talk like that at the coffee shop" column. (I think it's one of those secret clauses Al Gore got put into telecommunications law, like the one that requires us to pay for all sorts of things through our phone bills that we know nothing about.) Here is this year's entry, from the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin's Jeff Vrabel:

Mishra, by all accounts, was a gracious and entertaining champion, keeping judges and audiences entertained with witty one-liners while routinely knocking back words like "guerdon" and "numnah."

Both of those words, like all spelling bee words, were absolutely made up for the competition and don't remotely exist in real life. Let me know, however, if you've ever been relaxing in a coffee shop and overheard someone at the next table saying, "Yeah, Bill, I really got a bad guerdon in the numnah right now, and my opificer says I need to have that brankursine removed by cryptarithm before the empyrean gets inflamed and itchy."

"Guerdon" (GUR dn), for Vrabel and other word reverse-snobs, goes all the way back to the 14th century and has a heck of a pedigree: Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin variation of the Old High German word widarlon. It's a wonderful word meaning a reward or recompense. Another useful word in the "reward" area is lagniappe (lan YAP), which is an Americanism of Creole origin. It literally means a small gift given to the customer on top of his purchase and, figuratively, an unexpected gift or benefit. I've also frequently heard it used as the equivalent of "icing on the cake." But it's such a common word that even Connecticut columnists might not think it was made up. Such words add variety and spice to our language.

Also after each spelling bee, somebody is sure to point out that the kids get lists of all the words that will be used, which means that the contest is "just" memorization. But memorization is calisthenics for the brain cells. There probably should be more rote learning in classrooms, not less.

Anyway, congratulations to Sameer Mishra of West Lafayette, who for the next year will be the hero of nerds everywhere (just look at that photo, for God's sake) and who is reponsible for dozens of headlines across the country that start out "Indiana boy. . ." and don't end with something embarrassing.


Harl Delos
Tue, 06/03/2008 - 10:24am

I think half the population of the US was introduced to "numnah" in this last week.

I've seen that clip on quite a few TV shows, and I wonder if Sameer isn't going to be offered at least one opportunity to appear in a movie. Maybe a "Home Alone"-ish role? He certainly is personable!

And it's a shame that so many shows are using the clip without mentioning his name. Looks like he's getting fifteen minutes of anonymous fame!