Chthonic, psammophile: The best spelling bee words to add to your vocab

Sarah Fernndes, among the youngest at 11 years old, competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals June 1, 2023. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

The nation’s most accomplished junior spellers took to the stage Thursday night for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, competing for $50,000 in prize money that was won, in the end, by 14-year-old Dev Shah.

The spellers were given words that would baffle the vast majority of adult viewers at home, words such as “gazabo” (no, not gazebo) and “querken.” Each session in the spelling bee consists of two spelling rounds and one round in which contestants answer multiple-choice questions about the definition of words.

Here are some of our favorites to add to your vocabulary.

1. Chthonic

Tarini Nandakumar, 12, was eliminated when she offered an incorrect definition of “chthonic,” which means “relating to the underworld,” deriving from the Ancient Greek “khthon,” or soil. Hades and Persephone are chthonic deities, and the word can also be used more poetically to describe something dark and deathly, with a sinister power. The Washington Post deployed it in 1985 to describe a deep, dark patch of forest, in a review of a science fiction novel by Robert Holdstock. Chthonic is also the name of a Taiwanese heavy metal band.

2. Gazabo

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says this word is slang for a fellow, man or boy. You can be forgiven for not being aware of this particular patois, however; most records of its usage are a century or more old. And it was not a complimentary term, according to the chapter “Terms of Disparagement in American Dialect Speech,” in the 1913 Publication of the American Dialect Society. There, it is listed alongside such insults as “gump,” “spindle-shanks” and “porpoise.” Next time you want to call someone a “blundering, or officious person,” as in, “I went down to church and some gazabo directed me to the wrong place,” give it a try.

3. Leguleian

A leguleian is a lawyer known for being petty and argumentative, with a tendency to fixate on minor details and technicalities, according to LSD Law. It can be used to describe anyone with those undesirable traits, law degree or no. If someone is prosecuting a trivial point with you as if they were standing in front of a judge, they are being a leguleian, or behaving in a leguleian manner. Its closest synonym, according to Merriam-Webster, is also a fun noun: “pettifogger.”

Sarah Fernandes, 11, the youngest speller to reach the finals, was eliminated when she missed that tricky “a.”

4. Omphaloskepsis

Another word gifted to the English language from Ancient Greek, it combines “omphalos,” meaning navel, with “skepsis,” which means to examine – more commonly expressed as the act of navel-gazing. Neutrally, it can describe looking at the stomach while deep in meditation – a mystical religious and philosophical practice. However, these terms are often used with a note of derision, applied to someone who is self-absorbed. After asking a few questions, Charlotte Walsh, 14, correctly provided the word’s definition to the Scripps judges.

5. Psammophile

Dev Shah, 14, won the 2023 bee when he correctly spelled “psammophile”: a plant or animal adapted to live among sand. The word combines “psammos,” the Ancient Greek for “sand,” with “phile,” which means “lover” in the same language – as in, bibliophile, or a lover of books; francophile, a lover of all things French; or phonophile, a lover of records. Psammophiles themselves are examples of extremophiles, organisms that love extreme environments.

6. Querken

Querken, which means to cause to gasp, has traveled a meandering path from the Old Norse “kverk,” for throat, through Middle Low German, Old Frisian, Middle English and modern vernacular, according to Merriam-Webster, before falling into such rarity that it stumped Pranav Anandh, 14, on Thursday night.

7. Kelep

Surya Kapu, 14, was tripped up by “kelep,” the word for a Central American stinging ant that was brought to Texas in the early 1900s to keep invasive boll weevils from destroying cotton crops. (He guessed “quelep.”) The word comes from the Indigenous Kekchi, or Q’eqchi’, language, according to Merriam-Webster; scientists call the species Ectatomma tuberculatum.

8. Rommack

“Rommack” means to romp or play boisterously. Although it’s not a long or complicated word, it’s of unknown origin, meaning spellers can’t use knowledge of a particular language to make educated guesses. This was one of the words correctly spelled by Shah, the overall champion, who visibly sighed in relief upon getting it right.



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