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Attack of the killer bee

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 1, 2008 06:25 PM

Well, I have just spent more time than I could spare at the new Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee site. Expugnable, ecchymosis, caitiff -- all those old bee friends are there, and some new ones too (hello, unau!).

I've been in a few real spelling bees -- local ones, to benefit public schools, and big-bucks corporate ones, to benefit the Literacy Foundation -- and they're fun, once you accept that luck plays a major role. Your team might get an ordinary word like abscission, or something unguessable, like haulm. ("Chiefly British. The stems of peas, beans, potatoes, or grasses.")

But for a spelling geek, the VT bee improves on the social version in a couple of satisfying ways. It gives you several tries -- infinite tries, for all I know -- to spell a word: cachumenal? cacuminole? cacumenal? -- only giving the answer when you click the surrender button (cacuminal: "Articulated with the tip of the tongue turned back and up toward the roof of the mouth").

And unlike a traditional spelling bee, it shuffles your misspelled words back into the list so you can try, try again. Urceole! Urceole! Urceole! ("A vessel for water for washing the hands.")

Ben Zimmer, executive editor of Visual Thesaurus, explains the inner workings of the bee, with graphs, at the Oxford University Press blog. The process is addictive, he says, because

it’s been designed to be adaptive, so the more words that are spelled correctly, the more difficult the words become. And conversely, if you’re not a great speller, the words will get easier and easier. That way a player will always be quizzed at the appropriate skill level.

The algorithm is constantly refining itself:

Every five minutes, words are rescored for difficulty taking into account the latest data from the Bee spellers. That means there’s an increasingly better fit to different skill levels. As the player continues to spell, the quiz narrows in on his or her score, on a scale from 200 to 800.

And if you're a Visual Thesaurus member, with a $19.99 subscription, the site will post your name and score when you rank in the top 10 spellers of the day or month.

Wear headphones, advises the site, but even with headphones I had trouble distinguishing between some initial-consonant pairs, like th/ph, v/b, and t/k; you want to look extra carefully at the (not always helpful) definitions when one of these consonants comes along.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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