How do you spell competition?

On a recent Friday night, spectators showed their tickets, took their seats and prepared for an evening of back-and-forth exchanges that would eventually determine a champion.

But this crowd wasn’t gathered to watch numbers move on a scoreboard. Its focus was letters, and lots of them.

In a town where sporting events often take center stage, spelling was in the spotlight at Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books.

“Our job at the College of Arts and Sciences is to bridge the gap between scholarship and the community,” said Max Owre, interim director of the Program for the Humanities at Carolina, and a co-organizer of the Adult Spelling Bee.  “With this particular project, what we’re doing is, in a very light-hearted way, getting some academic content in the form of words out to the community.”

Since the first Adult Spelling Bee took place last August, the event has been taking off in popularity.  There have been three spelling bees – with a fourth scheduled for tonight (April 18) at 7 p.m. — and event organizers hope the contests become a mainstay.

“The humanities are alive, they can be joyous and they can be something you can have fun with,” Owre said.  “We very much hope to build community through this event and we’ll be repeating it.”

Admission is $5, and judging by a recent competition, the cost is well worth it.

At a recent showdown, 15 men and women competed for individual spelling supremacy.  Words like “infallible” and “malfeasance” filled the early rounds, but as the number of contestants dwindled, the textual terrain grew increasingly difficult.

The word “tourbillion” – a type of whirlwind or vortex – tripped up Gina DiFino of Pittsboro in the spelling bee’s final round, but she was far from discouraged.

“I know they’ve been doing [spelling bees] a lot in bars in Brooklyn and other places and they’re getting popular,” DiFino said.  “I felt like this would be a fun time.  Whether I competed well was not elemental to my success today.”

The spelling bee’s creators saw things the same way. Jamie Fiocco, co-owner of Flyleaf Books and co-organizer of the Adult Spelling Bee, said what he enjoyed most was watching the audience’s reaction.

“Obviously, the competitors are involved and invested, but to see the crowd groan and the agony and the ecstasy – it’s a lot fun to see people get into the spelling and the word play just talk about words in general.”

The fun atmosphere also helped recruit an additional community partner to co-sponsor the events. DSI Comedy Workshop in Carrboro joined the Program for the Humanities and Flyleaf Books as a sponsor after the group’s founder, Zach Ward, saw how lively – and funny – the competition was.

“You’d be surprised, but there’s a lot of comedy on stage when people are spelling words, both correctly and incorrectly,” said Ward, whose comedians help judge the spellers.

There’s a bit of pride, too, for the person who ultimately wins.

Chris Vitiello, a freelance writer from Durham, said he never competed in spelling bees growing up, but the rigor of his professional craft more than made up for his lack of competition experience. After he was crowned champion, he received a new copy of the Chambers dictionary, and he was also given a panegyric — a public speech in praise of someone or something – for his victory.  (“Panegyric,” by the way, was the word he spelled correctly for the win.)

“It’s great to see an academic thing on stage and have it be a competition,” Vitiello said. “The whole tone of the competition was really casual and informal, so it would’ve been as much fun to lose as to win.”

By Rob Holliday, UNC News Services

Published April 18, 2014