Wizard of Words
nunciation, and thus the nascent crystallization of the techniques that would fuel her future obsession.
Though Snigdha’s parents had planned to keep her there
for a few months till she adjusted to school, they kept her
there for two years before taking her back to Mission Bay
Snigdha entered her first spelling bee in the third grade.
A good showing there encouraged her to keep her nose to
the dictionary, and it helped that in the fourth grade —
back, you know, in 2009 — she won the Long Beach Spelling Bee.
It was dawning upon Snigdha that there was more to this
than stringing up letters, thus giving the lie to criticisms —
honestly intended or envious — against spelling bees.
“Words are not just spellings. A spelling reveals the evolution of the word. When you dissect a word into roots, you can
see how it was formed,” she said as she argued that words give
us glimpses into geography, history, bygone cultures, and
Once in Francis Parker School, she and her family seriously began considering a go at the Scripps Howard National
She had already watched Spellbound and Akila the Bee and
knew a little of the kind of preparation involved. She thought
she had a chance, but her school did not participate in spelling bees.
The family importuned the authorities, and
thanks to some help from middle school principal Dan Lang, brought the school on board.
Snigdha was dealing with some serious handicaps. San Diego county only permitted participation in the seventh and eighth grade.
This, despite the 2005 win by Anurag Kashyap
(winning word ‘appoggiatura,’ music to his ear),
from the city of Poway, also from the same county. This meant that Snigdha had but two chances
to go for a win. (Many other counties do not put
such strictures on the number of times a candidate can compete for the competition.)
Also, the senior Nandipatis were not as comfortable in English as the parents of many of the
Snigdha’s father provided backend support
using science and his can-do attitude, including
his computing skills; her mother held her up
emotionally when she despaired.
“I really like to study spelling, but at times you
need special encouragement,” Snigdha admitted.
When she came in 27th, falling to ‘kerystic’
(pertaining to preaching), a little doubt may not
have been misplaced. But in retrospect, Snigdha
says it was all good.
“I learned so much from (the competition),” she
Still, the Nandipatis switched strategies. She had known
the word, but her reliance on flash cards had failed her, given
that she appeared to be less of a visual learner but one who
relied on experience and exploration.
“We changed study tactics. We took some words — put
them in a test pdf file. So that file had all the info I needed to
spell the word... I kept doing the test words over and over
“There were a lot of hard words, I have to admit,” she says.
Snigdha remembers how the preparation paid off during
the semifinals, when she came upon ‘compas’ (Haitian
music, a blend of the Cuban and African).
She asked if it came from French and was told its roots lay
Because she had spent time on research, she knew that the
Creole spoken in Haiti had ties with Latin languages. So she
spelt the word, without adding a superfluous ‘S.’
She gave the example of what happened to another
redoubtable speller in the contest, Nicholas Rushlow who
came across ‘vetiver’ (a fragrance extracted from an Indian
grass), which has its roots in Tamil.
“Once it comes from Indian languages the spelling changes, the pronunciation changes,” she said.
It was the spelling that mattered, and Nicholas could not
use background information to guess it right.
“At that point it is just luck. Each one of the finalists were
very talented. They were all amazing,” she said.
“As a speller I know how another speller feels. There’s more
of a bonding,” she said. I did feel really (bad) when a speller
was eliminated. They were so good and one word had knocked them out,” she said.
“There is some guilt involved,” she admits, agreeing that,
like gladiators amid bloody-minded spectators,
the spelling bee contestants understood each other perhaps better than the audience did.
Given the attention it draws, it is easy to unjustly assume that spellings alone define Snigdha.
For Snigdha has been playing the piano for nine
years, the violin for three.
She particularly likes music by John Williams
(remember, Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, et al?
Though she mentions (William’s) Remembering
Carolyn, the theme from Presumed Innocent).
She also likes Shakespeare and Jane Austen.
“I have been reading Pride and Prejudice and I
really like that, she said. “The vocabulary is very
rich. What vivid descriptions she uses!”
And yet, she likes non-fiction books, particular-
ly those encyclopedias, including the last print edi-
tion of the Brittanica – part of her spoils from the
The eighth-grader does not get to hang around
with friends since they live far away. She enjoys
her mother’s food (all vegetarian, and including
“really good Tomato Dal” Dosa and Idli) and is
learning how to make them.
And yet, though life has to gone on, she admit-
ted, “at certain times I felt like (life is over).”
But perhaps there’s still a little left over for the
15-year-old to do more things.
For now, she is preparing for the Brain Bee, looking at summer internships where she can focus on neuroscience
(University of California boasts the redoubtable Indian stars
Villayanur Ramachandran and Ajit Varki).
“Neuroscience is a promising career in the next few
decades,” she said.
Perhaps there is life after a spelling bee victory after all. ;
On the Spelling Bee circuit, Snigdha Nandipati found inspiration in interactions with past
winners Kavya Shivashankar (2009), top, and Anamika Veeramani (2010), above.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTES Y: THE NANDIPATIS
again so that it stayed in my mind.”
She also browsed through Wikipedia and other sites to
learn the words, their history and etymology.
The father and daughter went over the same pdf again and
again, keeping aside words she got wrong so that she would
go over them again, until the list became first manageable,
then negligible, then infinitesimal.
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