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 has been studying the list for months. He has practiced difficult pronunciations, researched etymologies and helped craft context sentences - some funny, some not - for the national competition. He is ready.
So, too, is the Hyatt's Independence Ballroom, where spellers will compete today and tomorrow. Bailly, dressed in red shorts, a collared short-sleeve paisley shirt and a pair of white socks stitched with green chameleons, strolled through the hotel yesterday morning. From a nearby room, spellers quietly trickled out after completing round one of the preliminary competition, which will help determine whether they participate in tomorrow's televised semifinals.
It's a familiar scene for Bailly, 44, a tenured classics professor at the University of Vermont. This will be his eighth year as the official pronouncer. In his slow and sure voice, one by one, 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. He is the voice of the bee.
"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 schoolteacher in the late 1970s. By sixth grade, another teacher urged him to join the school's spelling team and by eighth grade, at 13, Bailly won the local spelling bee, qualifying him to compete in 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.
He went on to study classics at Brown and Cornell and, 20 years ago, approached the directors of the Scripps bee about working for the organization. He served as the associate pronouncer for 12 years, helping develop the word list for national bees and assisting the head pronouncer as necessary. In 2003, when the previous official pronouncer died, Bailly took over.
He is something of a celebrity, at least inside the Grand Hyatt this week. Parents of spellers stop him to say hello in the lobby; hundreds of spellers will ask for his autograph.
Leslyn Hall, Bailly's wife, said she can only recall one time when someone recognized him on the street. He may be the voice of the spelling bee in Washington - he even played himself in "Akeelah and the Bee," the 2006 movie about the contest - but in Burlington, Vt., he is not famous, she said.
"He's always very humble when people realize that he does this," Hall said.