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OXON HILL, Md. (Reuters) - Youthful contestants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee reacted with a combination of shock and awe to some of the words they were assigned as the annual competition began on Wednesday.
Jeremy Ortmann, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Hobe Sound, Florida, recoiled and laughed in disbelief when asked to spell "gesamtkunstwerk," a German word for a perfect work of art.
"You were saving that one for me, weren't you?" he said to pronouncer Jacques Bailly, then aced it.
Some contestants wrung their hands when they got a word and looked to the ceiling as they spelled. Many wrote out the letters on their hands or forearms before stepping up to the microphone.
Charles Hamilton Jr., a 12-year-old eighth-grader from Nassau, the Bahamas, responded quickly when given "Wensleydale" to spell.
"May I have an easy word, please?" he asked, drawing laughter from the audience in a hotel ballroom. He then correctly gave the spelling for the English cheese.
After preliminary and semifinal rounds, the finals on Thursday night will be televised by ESPN. The winner receives $35,000, savings bonds and other prizes.
The almost 300 spellers in the 88th annual Bee emerged from more than 11 million hopefuls who took part in local contests. They come from eight countries and all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and Defense Department schools.
Spellers range in age from 9 to 15 and run the gamut of height and physical development. Many older contestants must bend over to reach the microphone.
But 9-year-old Aahil Nishad, a fourth-grader from Danbury, Connecticut, had to use both hands to pull it down to mouth level and tilt his head back as he nailed "mahal," an Indian mausoleum.
Eleven semifinalists are returning this year, including St. Louis eighth-grader Gokul Venkatachalam, who placed third last year.
Indian-Americans have won the last seven titles and all but four times in the past 15 years. Racist comments on social media were sparked by the victory last year of Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar of Corning, New York.
Asked about the backlash, Paige Kimble, the Bee's executive director and the 1981 champion, told reporters that the contest was "one of the purest forms of a meritocracy."
"We support every kid, no matter where they come from, and it's unfortunate that some people have some not very nice things to say on social media."
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney