The Mystery Voice of the Spelling Bee

Jacques Bailly, the spelling bee pronouncer, is a former bee winner himself.


May 30, 2008 — -- For Jacques Bailly, the official word pronouncer at the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee, enunciating isn't the hardest part of his job.

He can pronounce the most difficult words without hesitation – from "appoggiatura" to "autochthonous" to "prospicience" — but Bailly says witnessing the eyes of unsuccessful spellers fill with tears isn't easy.

"Watching the spellers miss a word is so hard," Bailly told during a break in his pronouncing duties. "Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to give them something and they just aren't seeing it."

Bailly, who won the spelling bee trophy in 1980 as an 14-year-old after correctly spelling "elucubrate," is permitted under bee rules to provide the definition of the word, its part of speech, its language of origin and any alternative pronunciations. The pronouncer can even use the word in a sentence for the young – and sometimes perplexed – linguists.

But for many spellers blinded by the glare of the spotlight, these hints are for naught.

"There's always one or two spellers who look like they know the word and then they miss it," said Bailly, who wore a tie decorated with bumble bees for the first round of the competition Thursday. "They just don't listen up there."

For Bailly, who will pronounce hundreds of words before this year's champion is announced, it is the spellers who have some fun during their time on stage that make up for those who leave in tears.

"Some are really cute or really fun," said Bailly, who added that he doesn't pick favorites or root for one particular speller, though he does think some are more entertaining to watch than others.

One speller in the preliminary round of this year's bee replied with an eager "howdy!" when Bailly greeted her before asking her to spell. Another pumped his fists in the air after he spelled his word correctly.

But Rebecca Sealfon, the 1997 bee champion, stands out in Bailly's mind as one of the more entertaining contestants.

"She would shout every word she spelled," said Bailly, who joked that Sealfon may have broken the microphone.

Loud or not, Sealfon eventually succeeded at spelling "euonym," and grabbed a trophy.

And like many avid bee watchers, Bailly said that one of the most memorable bees was when 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga fainted mid-word during the 2004 competition.

"His knees locked and his eyes got really wide," remembered Bailly. "And he just fell over."

"But the best part was when he just got right back up and got the word," said Bailly.

Buddiga spelled "alopecoid" correctly and was one of the top finishers.

Despite his extensive bee experience – he's been the head pronouncer for six years and was the associate pronouncer for 12 years before that – Bailly says he still can't predict whether a speller is going to do well or not.

"You never know if they've developed a poker face or not," said Bailly, who added that he hasn't seen many kids "hamming it up" yet this year. "I have my suspicions, though."

And despite what one might assume about aggressive stage parents eager to see their spellers succeed, Bailly said he's never had any negative experiences.

Bailly said that even though he has the word lists months in advance of the bee, he's never been bribed by a speller or parents.

"But I do have a paper shredder at home," he added.

And how does Bailly – who's an associate professor of classics at the University of Vermont during the off-season — always get the words' pronunciation right?

"I practice," he says.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events