WASHINGTON - The only hard copy of the official Scripps National Spelling Bee word list is under lock and key somewhere inside the Grand Hyatt Washington, and even Jacques Bailly, the bee's official pronouncer, is unsure of its exact location.
Bailly, known affectionately by this year's 273 spellers as Dr. Bailly (pronounced BAY-lee), isn't worried. He's studied the list for months, practiced difficult pronunciations, researched etymologies, and helped craft context sentences - some funny, some not - for this week's national competition. He is ready.
So, too, is the Hyatt's Independence Ballroom, where spellers compete Thursday and Friday. As Bailly, a tenured classics professor at the University of Vermont and the 1980 national bee champion, strolled through the hotel Wednesday, spellers quietly trickled out of a nearby room after completing round one of the preliminary competition, which will help determine whether they participate in Friday's televised semifinals.
This is Bailly's eighth year as official pronouncer. In his slow, sure voice, he will read selected words from the official list. At the request of the spellers, he will also offer the word's country of origin and its definition, and will use it in a sentence.
"I love watching this," he said of the bee. "They're up there spelling words that most adults don't know and can't define. It's a real celebration of the English language."
Bailly traces his love of words to an introduction to etymology by his fifth grade Catholic school teacher in the late 1970s. By sixth grade, another teacher urged him to join the school's spelling team and by eighth grade, at 13, he won the local bee, qualifying for the national bee in Washington. In 1980, he became the national champion by correctly spelling elucubrate, a word with Latin origins that means to study at night.
Twenty years ago, after studying classics at Brown and Cornell, he approached the directors of the Scripps bee about working for the organization. He was associate pronouncer for 12 years, helping develop the word list for national bees and assisting the head pronouncer. In 2003, when the previous pronouncer died, he took over.
Bailly says his job is not about entertaining the audience. "I have a very focused thing to do and they are relying on me to do it," he said. "It's important to keep the focus on the spellers. . . . It really shouldn't be about me."
But, like it or not, he is a bit of a celebrity, at least inside the Grand Hyatt this week. Hundreds of spellers will ask for his autograph by Friday.
"You would think he was a rock star and had that kind of personality, but he is unassuming and quiet," said Mark Usher, a University of Vermont colleague. "He's a quintessential nerd, all in a good way. He's very careful about words and how they work in a sentence, but he's very messy. His office is a wreck."
Neatness isn't a requirement for a Scripps bee pronouncer, but knowledge of words and etymology is, said bee director Paige Kimble, the 1981 national champion. She lost to Bailly in 1980.
"He has to have a complete mastery of diacritical markings," Kimble said of the symbols used to indicate a word's correct pronunciation. Bailly, an amateur woodworker and proud owner of an extensive crazy sock collection, is a perfect fit, she said.