Can you spell sour grapes? Or litigation?

Tuesday, June 9, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

We've always had a nice variety of options for sore losers. They could pout. They could grouse. They could blame the officials -- the ref was blind, the umpire crooked.

If they were children, they could call their opponent a vile name, a big doody-head, for instance. They could take their ball and go home. They could cry. Now they litigate.

A 12-year-old California girl sued after she lost in the final round of a regional spelling bee. The Sacramento Bee newspaper was named in the suit along with Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., which sponsors the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Impugning the rules

"My clients feel very strongly about their position," said Matthew C. Mani, an attorney for Anthea J. Kamalnath, an eighth-grader, and her parents, Prakash and Jacintha Kamalnath, who are not in the eighth grade. After a judge denied the Kamalnaths' claims, Mr. Mani refiled, this time naming Haley Owen, 13, who vanquished Anthea in the regional bee.

Haley's parents said they would pray for the Kamalnaths.

Anthea was eliminated from the regional contest after misspelling impugn, a word the plaintiffs said was unauthorized. They also claimed that the rules were violated.

A second judge denied their suit.

Every year, Scripps gets 50 to 100 complaints, according to Paige Kimble, the company's director of the National Spelling Bee. That's probably not too surprising, considering there are about 20,000 preliminary bees involving an estimated 10 million children.

And their parents.

She says all complaints are takenseriously, but this one was "without merit." The bee was sued once before -- unsuccessfully -- in 1986. "It was thrown out of court."

Were the plaintiffs flogged, I wondered? She didn't think so. And she would probably remember such an event. She not only is in charge of the big, final spell-o-rama in Washington, but she is a former winner herself. Back in 1981, she got $1,000. Today's winners get $10,000 in cash.

Spellers of every stripe

The first champ, who correctly spelled "gladiolus" in 1925, was congratulated by President Calvin Coolidge. The boy went on to become a patent attorney. Bee champions have become doctors, teachers, nurses, waitresses, journalists and secretaries. One winner later was arrested for blowing his nose on the American flag during a Vietnam War demonstration.

Another refuses to talk about her championship, saying the public exposure was more than a seventh-grader could handle.

Ms. Kimble says there's a "comfort room" at the finals in Washington for that very reason. After a youth misses a word, he or she goes directly into the room, where there are soft drinks, snacks and parents. But no media.

"These are still children," she says.

This year's bee proceeded smoothly despite the litigious Californians. A 12-year-old seventh-grader from Jamaica named Jody-Anne Maxwell won on May 28 by correctly spelling the word chiaroscurist, a painting style or painter who uses light and dark tones.

The runner-up was felled by the word prairillon, which -- as everybody knows -- means small prairie. Last year's winner correctly spelled euonym, defined as an appropriate word for a person, place or thing. Impugn, the word that tripped up the litigant from California, is pretty tame as spelling bee words go. It's in my dictionary, and I've actually heard people use it in conversation. But I can't imagine using some of those other words in a sentence, unless the sentence would be, "The word you are supposed to spell is prairillon." But how's this for an euonym? Anybody who would clog the court system because their kid lost a spelling bee is a big doody-head.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at