It was a tough word that got him.

Subauditur, something understood or implied based on what is expressed.

He asked the announcer to repeat it, and for the language of origin.

He took a couple of moments before answering. The audience applauded as he returned to his seat. He had a lot to be proud of.

Vothom Lu, Camden's 11-year-old spelling champion, made it to the third round of the Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

The Cramer Elementary sixth grader is the first Camden student to ever even qualify for the nation's oldest and most prestigious spelling competition.

"We are so proud of him," said Marie Hall, a district language arts and English supervisor, who was in the crowd. "He did so well up there."

Lu shared the ballroom stage at the Grand Hyatt Washington, just a few blocks from the White House, with 272 students.

He wore a suit with a clip-on tie and shiny new shoes.

"He looked so cute," Hall said.

His parents held their breath; his mother had woken him up at 5:30 a.m. even though the competition didn't begin till 10 a.m.

"I'm so nervous," his mother was telling people.

Lu was calm, Hall said.

"I like the competition," Lu had said earlier in the day by phone. "It thrills me."

So did the fancy hotel.

"They have TVs in the bathroom," he said.

Five other New Jersey students participated in Thursday's preliminary rounds but also did not advance.

Three Pennsylvania students will compete in Friday evening's semifinals, which will be broadcast on national television.

For a time, spelling was no longer emphasized in the Camden school curriculum, district spokesman Bart Leff said.

"Spelling was not a part of the state testing process, so the emphasis was put on reading and literacy for a period of about five years," he said.

Superintendent B. Lefra Young reinstated spelling when she took over the district three years ago, Leff said.

Last year, the district held its first districtwide bee in more than two decades.

Lu won this year's event in March at Dudley Elementary.

He competed against 65 students from the third to 12th grades. The school board held a ceremony and presented him with a plaque with his name on it.

Shy and tiny, Lu struggled for something to tell the group, Assistant Superintendent Andrea Gonzalez-Kirwin recalled.

" 'I'm at a loss of words,' he finally said. 'But I can spell them,' " she remembered.

Thursday, Lu was calm and confident on the stage.

"He thinks when he spells," Hall said.

"My strategy is to count the syllables," Lu had explained. "Then I break up the different sections of the word and spell them out."

He said he had been practicing for weeks at the dining room table with his older sister, who is also a good speller. His parents are Vietnamese. English is his second language.

He said his spelling has made him more popular with classmates. "They come up to me and ask me to spell things," the youngster said.

The first word Lu received Thursday was lieutenant.

"Oh, man," Lu thought, excited. "I know this one."

But the words got harder in the third round. The student before Lu struck out on instauration. Other kids were hit with weissnichtwo and xerocolous.

Lu could not break down subauditur.

Hall was still thrilled.

"We cherish any opportunities for our students to get out in the world and see what's possible," she said. "I can't imagine he'll ever forget this for the rest of his life."

Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 856-779-3237 or mnewall@phillynews.com.