OXON HILL, Md. >> Soft-spoken but brimming with confidence, Dev Shah asked precise questions about obscure Greek roots, rushed through his second-to-last word and rolled to the Scripps National Spelling Bee title Thursday night.
Dev, a 14-year-old from Largo, Florida, had his spelling career interrupted by the pandemic, then didn’t make it out of his regional bee last year. He got through his highly competitive regional this year for a third and final try at the national title, and he ended up holding the trophy over his head as confetti fell.
His winning word was “psammophile,” a layup for a speller of his caliber.
“Psammo meaning sand, Greek?” he asked. “Phile, meaning love, Greek?”
He soaked up the moment by asking for the word to be used in a sentence, something he described a day earlier as a stalling tactic. Then he put his hands over his face as he was declared the winner.
Charlotte Walsh, a 14-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, was the runner-up, and she gave Dev a congratulatory hug. Dev, who previously appeared in the bee in 2019 and 2021, was close with many of his fellow finalists.
“They’ve all been in many online bees and many Scripps National Spelling Bees, and I felt like a spark and a camaraderie between all of us,” he said. “I’m very grateful and I’m privileged that I could be in a spelling bee with them one final time.”
When the field had been narrowed to just Dev and Charlotte, Scripps brought out the buzzer used for its “spell-off” tiebreaker, and Dev was momentarily confused when he stepped to the microphone.
“This is not the spell-off, right?” Dev asked. Told it was not, he spelled “bathypitotmeter” so quickly that it might as well have been, the latest example of his unassuming onstage swagger.
Dev wins more than $50,000 in cash and prizes and is the 22nd champion in the past 24 years with South Asian heritage.
The bee began in 1925 and is open to students through the eighth grade. Spellers qualify by winning regional competitions around the country. There were 229 kids onstage at the beginning of this year’s national bee — and each was a champion many times over, considering that 11 million participated at the school level.
While the spelling bee is smaller and the field not as deep as in pre-pandemic years, this year’s finalists demonstrated an impressive depth of knowledge as they worked their way through a sometimes diabolical word list.
The selection proved that the competition can remain entertaining while delving more deeply into the dictionary than in the past — especially in the second spelling round of the finals, when Scripps peppered contestants with short but tough words like “traik” (to fall ill, used in Scotland), “carey” (a small to medium-size sea turtle) and “katuka” (a venomous snake of southeastern Asia).
With the field down to four, Shradha Rachamreddy was eliminated on “orle,” a heraldry term that means a number of small charges arranged to form a border within the edge of a field, (she went with “orel”). And “kelep” — a Central American stinging ant — ousted Surya Kapu (he said “quelep”).
While sometimes Scripps’ use of trademarks and geographical names can anger spelling traditionalists who want to see kids demonstrate their mastery of roots and language patterns — and even the exceptions to those patterns — Scripps has made clear that with the exception of words designated as archaic or obsolete, any entry in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged dictionary is fair game.