You wouldn't necessarily think that a spelling competition could feature high-stakes drama, but as a group of kids appeared on stage to tackle words I've never even heard of, the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee proved to be surprisingly riveting. The top 10 spellers competing in Thursday night's finale were, in some cases, given a chance at a greater prize than your run-of-the-mill reality show contestants — a $40,000 cash prize and trophy, a trip to New York City, and fittingly, a Merriam-Webster reference dictionary. But the success of the winning candidates depends on their ability to spell incredibly difficult words. So what is the definition of the winning word from the spelling bee?
The spellers dealt with words rooted in all types of languages, an even more impressive feat given that the contestants ranged in age from 11 to 14 years old. German, Japanese, French, and the occasional English word dominated in the final rounds, with the contestants relying on skill, phonetics, and an obvious, intense study of linguistics (plus a little bit of luck, as some competitors' surprised faces revealed whenever they knocked out a word they were unsure about). When asked to use the words in a sentence, judges would often find ways to sneak the phrase into pop culture references — Game of Thrones came up in one example.
The competition came down to the wire — at 24 of 25 available rounds, neither 11-year-old Nihar Saireddy Janga or 13-year-old Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar had successfully beaten out the other with their spelling chops. So the judges proposed an alternative: If Janga and Hathwar each spelled an individual word correctly, then they would be crowned co-champions. Hathwar received "feldenkrais" (derived from Hebrew) and Janga got "gesellschaft" (derived from German).
What do those words mean? (I had no clue either.) "Feldenkrais" is a somatic education system, created by Moshé Feldenkrais, used to aid body movements and release tension, according to Merriam-Webster. (It may be wise to incorporate some feldenkrais into your routine after watching that finale.)
The definition of "gesellschaft" is a type of "social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons." And after correctly spelling these two incredibly difficult words — which are both more than 10 letters by the way — two spelling bee champions were born.
The crowd was elated as both boys accepted their win. Each thanked their families, with Hathwar acknowledging his brother in particular, who was also crowned a co-champion in the 2014 competition. Janga seemed a little more shaky, a stark contrast to his laser-like focus round after round. When asked how he got to where he was, Janga replied, "It's my mom, it's just my mom." He then reminded the audience: "I'm speechless, I can't say anything. I mean, I'm only in fifth grade."
A pretty great line coming from a kid who had just successfully spelled "gesellschaft" while barely batting an eye.