OXON HILL Md. (Reuters) - Pressure-busting one-liners were on full display as the tension-packed Scripps National Spelling Bee got under way on Wednesday.
Asking for the word in question to be used in a sentence is standard for the 281 youthful spellers, and presenter Jacques Bailly has built the routine into a low-key stick in which the contestants repeatedly say: "Do you have a funny sentence?"
When Mitchell Robson of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was given the word "Jacuzzi" to spell, Bailly illustrated it by saying, "After falling asleep in the jacuzzi, Brendan began fighting crime under the moniker of the Amazing Prune Man."
Robson, a sixth grader, responded: "He sounds like a really lame super hero," and aced the word, meaning a type of bath. Bailly then worked "the Amazing Prune Man" into sentences throughout the afternoon.
Bailly, who won the Bee in 1980, said the contest began incorporating humor in 2009. Some of the jokes are written beforehand by Bee staffers and some by comedy writers who also draft light-hearted sentences for Bailly to inject during the contest.
The sentence "is a place where we can sort of have a little fun and relax a little bit," Bailly, a classics professor, told reporters. "I think the kids appreciate it more than anyone else."
Illustrating "spelunker" for Sumedh Garimella, of Duluth, Georgia, Bailly said, "He was a spelunker, she collected bats. It was love at first cave visit." Garimella, an eighth grader, spelled the word for cave explorer correctly.
Forty-six spellers advanced to the semifinals and were taking computerized tests on Wednesday. The finals will be on Thursday night and televised on ESPN.
Among the finalists are Sriram Hathwar, of Painted Post, New York, who finished third last year, and Vanya Shivashankar, of Olathe, Kansas, who tied for fifth in 2013.
They emerged from a contest that originally involved more than 11 million students across the United States and seven countries.
Fifty-eight spellers were eliminated outright in the oral part. The typical reaction upon leaving the stage was a shrug, high fives to other contestants and hugs from family.
But one 13-year-old seventh grader, accompanied by a family member, left the hotel ballroom outside Washington in tears.
"I knew the word, my brains just blanked. Oh, God," he sobbed.
Editing by Gunna Dickson