Saturday, January 21, 2023

Still Life with Robin: The Real-Life Benefits of Playing Spelling Bee Every Day

by Peggy Robin

As you'll know if you've been reading my Still Life with Robin column since the fall of 2021, I am a hopeless Spelling Bee addict [1]. Not to brag [2] but I've been Queen Bee every day since June 6, 2021. 
Here's the reason I don't mind spending twenty minutes or more [3] a day on this little game: I often learn new words from it. And not just obscure, only-in-crossword type of words: They're the kinds of words I can actually come across in my reading -- and sometimes will incorporate in my writing.
I noticed this relatively quickly, as early as my second or third week of play. One day, I was one word shy of Queen Bee, and the word that was missing was MOTET. I found it through "mashing" -- that's the term for madly typing random letters to see if a combination is accepted as a word. After hitting upon MOTET, I looked it up in Merriam-Webster and found it referred to "a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment."
The very next day, I was reading an article in the New Yorker, and there it was, in the second paragraph: "In 1502, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, the chief pioneer of movable-type music publishing, issued a volume of sacred motets, with Josquin’s four-voice setting of 'Ave Maria'...."
Without having done Spelling Bee the day before, I wouldn't have known what that was all about. Now I will never forget it.
What else have I learned through Spelling Bee? I've been keeping a little list. Well, it's kind of a big list, at this point. Too big for me to post it all here, so I'm just going to give some examples for each letter of the alphabet (minus the X and Z, along with the S, which is not used in Spelling Bee).
Abaci. The plural of abacus.
Aglet. The small plastic or metal covering that keeps the end of a shoelace or cord from
Arborio. A short-grained rice.
Attar. A natural perfume derived from rose petals or other flora.
Baht. Thai currency.
Barbacoa. A Mexican cooking technique used on shredded meat, or the cooked meat itself.
Blin. A Russian pancake, singular of blini.
Brogan. A heavy leather work shoe.
Callaloo. A Jamaican vegetable stew.
Celli. The plural of cello.
Chiton. A chemical compound found in exoskeletons, the second-most common polymer found in nature, after cellulose.
Cinquain. A short poem of five unrhymed lines.
Cirri. The plural of cirrus (a type of cloud)
Codon. A type of unit in the genetic code of DNA or RNA.
Dace. A small fish commonly found in lakes and rivers in Europe.
Deckle. A frame for making ragged-edge pages.
Deke. A feint in hockey.
Duple. A musical meter with two beats to the bar.
Eidetic. Having accurate recall of images, e.g., eidetic memory.
Ennead. A group of nine.
Farad.  A unit of electrical capacity (from Faraday)
Galangal. A Thai spice, a form of ginger.
Gamelon. An Indonesia metal drum.
Hamartia. In classical Greek tragedy, the hero's flaw that leads to his downfall.
Heme. The non-protein part of hemoglobin.
Horchata. A milky drink made from tiger nuts (Spanish version) or made from white rice, seeds, jicaro, almonds or other nuts (South American version), mixed with spices, served hot or cold.
Indica. A type of marijuana. The other type is sativa.
Javelina. Another name for a peccary, a feral pig. Shortly after learning this word through Spelling Bee, there was a query on the Listserv about the peccary, asking what distinguished it from the warthog, and I took that opportunity to answer the question by providing a link to a site describing all three: the warthog, the peccary and the javelina -- see Message   on December 19, 2022.
Kola. The correct spelling for the nut (actually, the seed) of the cola tree. 
Larboard. An archaic term for port, that is, the opposite of starboard -- and a continuing source of irritation for legions of Spelling Bee players who have been lobbying Sam Ezersky, the editor of Spelling Bee, to accept ALEE and LUFF, both of which are far more common sailing terms than "larboard."
Llano. An open, grassy plain in South America or in the US Southwest.
Loblolly, A type of pine tree commonly found throughout the Southeast.
Lunula. The little white half-moon found at the base of the fingernail.
Malic. The acid that produces a sour taste in fruits.
Melodion. A type of accordion.
Mentee. One who is mentored.
Meze, also spelled mezze. Small dishes or appetizers in Levantine cuisine.
Minim. A drop of liquid from a dropper.
Mizzen. The mast just behind the main mast, or the sail on the mizzen mast.
Motet. A polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment.
Myope. A person with myopia (nearsightedness).
Naiad. A sea-nymph.
Nankeen. A mustard-colored fabric imported from China that was used to make gentlemen's trousers, fashionable during the Regency period in Britain. The trousers were also called nankeens.
Nepenthe. The forgetting potion used in The Odyssey.
Natant. Swimming or floating.
A skateboarding or snowboarding maneuver, a jump without the use of a takeoff ramp.
Opah. The moonfish.
Otalgia. Earache.
Outro. In musical composition, the opposite of an intro.
Palapa. A Mexican beach hut with a thatched roof.
Pellicle. The thin membrane of a cell.
Pepita. A pumpkin seed used in Mexican cooking.
Phial. Archaic spelling of vial.
Pipit. A small brown songbird, similar to a lark.
Pillion. The passenger seat behind the motorcyclist.
Podia. The plural of podium.
Quintain. A poem or a stanza of a poem of five lines.
Ramada. A shelter open on all sides, with a thatched or tile roof.
Roti. A round naan bread.
Tabla. A pair of small hand drums attached together, used in Indian music.
Tain. A thin tin plate, or the tin foil used as the backing for a mirror.
Tenon. A projecting member in a piece of wood or other material for insertion into a mortise to make a joint (carpentry).
Thole. One of a pair of pins, inserted into a gunwale to provide a fulcrum for an oar. 
Tilth. Tilled soil.
Tinct. Tinted or tinged.
Tittle. The dot above a lower-case I or J, or any tiny detail (usually when paired with "jot").
Toile. The test fabric used to create a mock-up of a new fashion design.
Torii. The gateway to a Shinto shrine (Japan).
Tubule. A small tube or minute channel, such as the ones found in the kidneys.
Tupelo. A tree that grows in swamps throughout the south and midwest.
Tutee. One who is taught by a tutor.
Uvea. The pigmented middle layer of the eyeball, consisting of three segments: the iris, the ciliary body and the choroid.
Venule. A small vein.
Villanelle. A nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain.
Voile. A sheer cotton fabric.
Wilco. "Will comply" in radio jargon. Often used after "roger" (meaning, "understood.")
Wight. A miserable creature, a wretched spirit or ghost (archaic).
Yech. Alternate spelling of yecch.
Yenned, yenning. Past tense and present participle of "to yen," meaning "to yearn."
Let me put that last word to immediate use: I am seriously yenning for a chance to use every one of these new words that I learned through Spelling Bee. Perhaps one day I will find a way to work them all into a 19-line villanelle.
1.  Here are the 3 previous Still Life with Robin columns on the NY Times Spelling Bee:
Sept 25, 2021: Words that should be included in Spelling Bee but aren't:
November 13, 2022: Staying on Twitter to tweet about Spelling Bee.
Nov 27 2022: Tomtit and Baobab podcast about Spelling Bee: 
2.  OK, it is to brag, and saying it's not is just a convention of speech.
3.  Truth be told, it's far more likely to take forty minutes than twenty minutes. But still time well spent!
Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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