In the days leading up to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, competitors made sure they knew their phonemes and root words. They were not the only ones.
On Sunday, Jacques A. Bailly gathered with the bee’s other pronouncers, along with its vocabulary team, in what he described as an “all word-nerds hands on deck” to go through the entire list of words and practice saying each one aloud.
“We all listen and make sure that all the T’s are dotted and the I’s are crossed, or the other way around,” he said.
Mr. Bailly won the bee in 1980 at the age of 14, and he has been pronouncing words for the competition since 2003. He traced his interest in spelling back to first grade, when he learned to read using phonics, sounding out each consonant, symbol and letter until it formed a word — not too different from what he does before a national audience.
Mr. Bailly does not have a bigger-than-normal breakfast before the competition. He does not do vocal exercises or sip on tea to relax his vocal cords. However, he does have a few tricks to make sure he pronounces a word on the first try.
First, he tries to make eye contact with the speller and humanize the moment.
“I’m thinking, ‘Can I get this person to make human contact and try to put them at ease?’” he said.
Then, as the competitor is walking up to the podium, Mr. Bailly looks at the word and quietly reads it to himself.
“When you’re reading English, you go pretty fast and take things for granted and occasionally do a double take,” he said. “I try to do a double take every time.”
When that doesn’t work, he has two fact checkers beside him who verify that he is pronouncing words correctly. If he ever misses anything, he is “keenly aware,” he said, of associate pronouncer Brian Sietsema’s elbow and head judge Mary Brooks’s eyebrows.
Competitors typically trip up on non-English words, he said, especially French, a language that has seeped into English so much that he has credited it as the reason spelling bees exist. In fact, French can even trip up Mr. Bailly, a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Vermont.
“If there’s a word I find hard to spell, it’s going to be French,” he said.