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The Smithsonian Spelling Bee

On the eve of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee, we present a list of some of the toughest words to spell from around the Smithsonian

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P-R-Z-E-... aw, forget it. Image courtesy of Mehgan Murphy, National Zoo

This week, we have a lot of really smart kids in town here to compete in the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The preliminaries began this morning at 8 AM EST and while we’re sure we couldn’t beat the 275 spellers in competition this year, the ATM blog team has come up with a list of words from around the Smithsonian, likely to stump even the savviest speller.

1. The P-Horse. It’s so hard to spell and pronounce that even the Zoo resorts to this nickname for the Przewalski’s Horse. Pronounced sheh-val-skee, the horse is named after 19th-century Polish naturalist Colonel Nikolai Przewalski, who found a skull of the horse and studied it in St. Petersburg. The brown-coated equine is native to eastern Europe and the Great Steppe crossing into Asia.

2. Artists—While math is the subject most commonly cited as a favorite among the spelling bee competitors this year, it doesn’t really require a lot of complicated spelling. Art or artists, rather, frequently do. The ATM staff has to be extra careful when writing about Georgia O’Keeffe (two e’s, two f’s), James McNeill Whistler (two l’s, no a) or Charles Willson (two l’s) Peale. The worst one is Eadweard Muybridge, who has way too many vowels in his first name. Check out their work at the American Art Museum and see if their art is any easier to understand than their names are to spell.

3. Volcanoes—Last year, a volcano erupted in Iceland, shutting down air traffic across Europe for days and affecting millions of passengers. Its name, the impossible to decipher Eyjafjallajökull. Considering that the bee contestants hail from around the United States, its territories and Department of Defense schools around the world, some might perchance live near one of the tough volcano names studied by the scientists at the Global Volcanism Program.

4. History—To help prepare for a spelling bee, many competitors study the origins of words. Learning about the origins of man, dinosaurs, civilizations and ancient life forms might be just as daunting. Walk around the halls of the Natural History Museum and learn more about ornithology, ichthyology, Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus afarensis and Paranthropus boisei, including how to spell them. Over at American History, there’s Evel Knievel’s motorcycle and the Stephen Colbert portrait. Why is it pronounced like he’s French? Is he hiding something from us?

5. Airplanes—Some of this year’s competitors traveled long distances to arrive at the bee, including 94 who are on their very first visit to the nation’s capital. But none probably rode on airplanes with names as complicated as: De Havilland, Mikoyan-Gurevich or Messerschmitt. See what other aeronautical tongue twisters you can find at the Air and Space Museum.

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About Arcynta Ali Childs
Arcynta Ali Childs

Arcynta Ali Childs was awarded journalism fellowships from the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the National Press Foundation, the Poynter Institute and the Village Voice. She also has worked at Ms. Magazine, O and Smithsonian.

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