Williams finishes 12th nationally in his final Spelling Bees appearance

‘Orismology’ sends St. Johns Country Day eighth-grader home

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 7/7/21

CLAY COUNTY – St. Johns Country Day School eighth-grader Erik Williams represented Clay County and Florida well at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bees.

Williams finished tied for 12th …

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Williams finishes 12th nationally in his final Spelling Bees appearance

‘Orismology’ sends St. Johns Country Day eighth-grader home

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – St. Johns Country Day School eighth-grader Erik Williams represented Clay County and Florida well at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bees.

Williams finished tied for 12th place out of 209 national competitors who qualified for the nationals, and while this was his last year to compete – and he’s competed in every year since fourth grade – he was satisfied to make it to the ninth round at the nationals, especially since the competition was canceled last year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I started way back in fourth grade because I figured it’d be a fun thing to do, even though you’re really supposed to start in fifth grade,” Williams said. “I came in third place that year at school but I got the bug.”

Williams’ Spelling Bees journey took off after that because the next year, he made it to the regionals. His losing word was versatile, but instead of spelling it like that, Williams spelled it differently after mixing up the word with a popular shoe brand at the time.

Determined to keep going, Williams spent more time studying and made it to the nationals in sixth grade. He made it through two rounds but failed the written test.

The competition usually starts at each student’s school and advances to local and regional spell-offs. The national competition usually airs on ESPNU. Williams said there’s actually a lot of rounds to cull down competitors, and there usually are between 200-500 students that make it to the nationals.

To trim the field to a manageable number, there are written and vocabulary tests where a speller has to know what a word means. Once competitors are reduced to a couple of dozen, they advance to the on-stage competition.

Williams’ journey into the Spelling Bees was somewhat gradual. He refused to put too much pressure on himself to succeed. His parents didn’t push him, either.

“I wouldn’t want it to be something that takes over his life,” Williams’ mother, Annica Williams, said. “He studied a lot, sure, but he also did well in school and he plays baseball. This is a precious time in a child’s life and I wouldn’t want him stuck inside all day studying words nonstop. We feel really good about his 12th place this year.”

Annica said beyond the competition part of the Spelling Bees, the journey taught Erik about word structure, grammar, roots, and origins, especially in Latin and Greek. Williams said learning more about the Latin and Greek languages has taught him more about English. He’s also learned so much about other cultures and their words, too, like Sanskrit.

“It’s not just about remembering how to spell a word,” Williams said. “It’s almost like a puzzle or a riddle. There are hundreds of thousands of words they might choose from so it’s impossible to remember all of them.”

Williams said that’s why he studied different languages, their word patterns, word roots and vocabulary. He might not immediately know how to spell a word but when he learns that the word is Greek, he can start to piece together how the Greek spell certain sounds in a word. 

Sometimes, though, that can backfire because some of the words don’t follow the patterns Williams studied. The word that took him out of this year’s competition was orismology. The Greeks often spell the lowercase-I sound with a Y and so Williams spelled it “orysmology.” However, orismology was an exception to the Greek patterns and word structures he had learned and so he spelled the word incorrectly.

Orismology is a noun that means the science of defining the technical or special terms of a particular subject or field of study.

“They use words like that to throw people off,” Williams said.

He said the Spelling Bees will often use eponyms, which are words like Turing machine named after a specific person, or trademarked words. An eponym word is tricky because people’s names don’t often follow patterns associated with word origin so it can often be a guess or a situation where one just has to go with their gut. Trademarked words like Kleenex might be used to do the same.

Williams was excited about the 2020 Spelling Bees, the second to last possible competition he was eligible to attend. But due to COVID-19, it was canceled.

His goal was to get within the Top 50 – or better than 51st – which is where he placed in sixth grade. This year’s Bees was virtual and Williams competed at the News4Jax. The rounds traditionally last a few days, but with the virtual setting, he got to the ninth round of words in just three days.

“This was kind of nice because there was more time to study in between rounds, but I still prefer in-person to virtual,” Williams said.

With Spelling Bees behind him now, he now will focus on his freshman year at St. Johns. Years of competitions have helped him understand grammar, which will help with SAT and ACT tests – and help him be a more well-rounded individual in his educational career. “We worked together a lot through all this,” Annica said. “I love seeing him go through this and succeed so much. It’s nice to see all his hard work pay off, but the most fun thing is all the time we’ve spent together. I’ll carry these memories with me for the rest of my life and it’s one of those things where, you know, as a mom, you recognize that it’s time for him to move on.”

Williams would love to still compete, but there aren’t any Bees after eighth grade. He will partake in Latin-based language competitions, but he’s also excited about playing baseball and what his future holds.

“I’ll never forget these moments,” Williams said.

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