There I awkwardly stood: a third grader in the midst of seventh and eighth graders, a dwarf in a garden of giants, an unwelcome addition to what was traditionally considered a “middle-school only” affair. I shakily approached the microphone, adjusted it to my height (once again), and meekly spelled my eighth or ninth word that day; then it came — “I’m sorry, the correct spelling is …..,” the pronouncer said, ending my lucky streak and, in my mind, my future as a “professional speller.” What I did not realize was that this event was the beginning of an obsession with etymology and words.

Fast forward 5 years, and I sat on the stage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as a returning competitor and for the last time. As the entrance music played, I looked out and saw a throng of spectators, dazzling lights, and television cameras, and as I reflected on the journey I had taken since that fateful day in the third grade — the grueling local competitions, the painful hours of inte

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