Do You Know What Cipollino Is? Or If That Word Was Said, Could You Spell It?

The National Spelling Bee finals concluded last night in Washington, D.C. the winner was a young man from Queens, New York. He beat out Syamantak Payra, the local favorite from Friendswood. Still, the 12-year-old says he learned a lot at the competition and plans to go back.


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I had never heard of cipollino.

It’s not even in, so it took a few additional seconds of Googling to figure out what this obscure word meant.

Syamantak Payra, however, already knew all about it:  

 “Cipollino or cipolin is a light-colored Roman marble.”

It’s also the word that Payra got wrong last night.

He finished in 7th place, which really isn’t bad considering that almost three hundred kids from all over the country came to DC for the finals.

So if he knew what the word meant, and had studied it, why did he misspell it?

“The thing was this word has a variant spelling, that is cipolon. But cipollino is Italian from Latin, whereas the cipolin is French from Italian from Latin.”

Payra went with the French derivation.

 It’s the kind of tiny mistake that makes a big difference among such fierce competitors.

“At first I was shocked because I thought I had gotten it right, as well as my mom and then a lot of my other speller friends.”

Spelling is just one of Payra’s activities, which include science fairs, ham radio, and ping pong.

His mother, Sanjukta, supervises his busy schedule and coaches him in spelling.

She says people are mistaken if they think spelling bees are just about brute memorization.

“The words are not just words, everything has a certain meaning and it has a certain life to it. And so they become real when you delve into the definition and examine it more carefully. I guess that helps to remember them better.” 

The Payras return to Houston tomorrow, after a day of sight-seeing in the capital.

His mother says he deserves to relax for a few days and do whatever he wants, and then they’ll probably start practicing again.

“You know, he’s not done yet, he has one more year of eligibility, so we are refocusing, regrouping and it’s battle time again.” 

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