After winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee on the word “elucubrate” in 1980 when he was 14 years old, Jacques Bailly Ph.D. ’97 has been the official pronouncer of the competition since 2003, serving as a “great mentor and friend” to many of the young students who take part in the spelling bee.
“He was great. He was always sort of trying to be a friend of the spellers and help us out in any way that he could and … put us at ease, you know when all the lights were on and you went up to spell your word,” Kerry Close ’14 told The Sun over the phone. “Dr. Bailly is a great mentor and friend to all the spellers, and I’m really glad he’s still the pronouncer there.”
Close, a former news editor for The Sun, won the tournament in 2006 on her fifth attempt when she was in eighth grade with the word “ursprache,” according to Business Insider.
In an interview with TIME in 2009, Bailly said he got the job of associate pronouncer for the spelling bee just by writing to the competition organizers and asking if there was anything he could do.
“In 1990, I wrote to the spelling bee and said, You know, I won in 1980, and in the 10 years between, I’ve learned a lot more French, German, Latin and Greek, and I was wondering if you could use some help from somebody like me,” Bailly said. “And at that point, they just happened to have a need. So I got in there as associate pronouncer, and that job is basically just making sure that everything the pronouncer says is right.”
Currently an associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Vermont, Bailly earned his bachelor’s degree in classics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Cornell in ancient philosophy, according to his curriculum vitae.
The job of the pronouncer is about more than just saying the word, according to Merriam-Webster. It’s about providing “all the information a speller can receive about that special word in the moment,” including its part of speech, origin and examples of its use.
“I always want them to get all the words right,” Bailly said in an interview with TIME. “I think that’s a lot of the fun of the spelling bee — you root for everybody. And I try to make it clear to the spellers that I’m there to give them absolutely every possible thing that I can to help them — within some limits.”
“Jacques makes it look easy. It’s not easy at all. It’s like balancing on top of a chair on top of a surfboard going across the Pacific Ocean,” said Brian Sietsema, another pronouncer, according to USA Today. “You’ve got to have laser-like attention on the speller in front of you.”
Bailly also starred as himself in Akeelah and the Bee, a movie about the competition, joking to TIME that “you can’t recognize me, they put so much makeup on me.”
“That film had a great message too, that you should study the history of words and foreign languages and the meaning of words more so than just memorizing them,” Bailly told TIME.
“Because English has taken words from all different languages, it has a whole bunch of competing spelling rules and systems, which makes the spelling bee more challenging,” he added.
Sixteen finalists competed in the final round of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, narrowed down from a “record-breaking pool of 515 spellers,” according to USA Today.
Despite the tense, high-pressure environment, Close said that in her experience, she was friends with many of the other competitors.
“We were all like twelve year old kids who had that strange commonality that we were all in the spelling bee, and you know we really said that we were competing against the dictionary rather than against one another,” she told The Sun.
“[The experience] was certainly something that set me up very well to be at Cornell, to be able to learn how to set little goals and work over a long period of time to achieve them,” she added. And it sort of taught you ‘hey, you’re not the smartest person in a room,’ at young age, which if I hadn’t learned that at the spelling bee, I would’ve learned it pretty quickly at Cornell.”