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Spellers stumped by words like irascible and phugoid

WASHINGTON -- Harry Altman's first word in this year's national spelling bee made him and the other young contestants chuckle. The definition: a pain in the head.

"C-e-p-h-a-l-a-l-g-i-a," Harry said, slowly emphasizing each letter.The elimination bell didn't ding. He had spelled it correctly. The boy smiled timidly and ambled back to his chair on the stage of a hotel ballroom here. The 12-year-old sixth-grader from Glen Rock, N.J., still had a chance to be this year's champ.

The 72nd Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee began Wednesday with "irascible," a word that means marked by a hot temper or resentful anger. Mark Albers, 12, of Reno, Nev., misspelled it with a double "r."

The bell signaling a misspelled word rang. He was out.

The bee began with 249 spellers. Thirty-three spellers were eliminated in the first round, including Shante Lewis, 9, a fourth-grader from Plainfield, N.J., who was the youngest contestant this year. Another 10 spellers misspelled words in the second round and were out of the competition.

Joanna Mann, 13, of San Angelo, Texas, missed her first word -- "phugoid." She didn't know what it meant, either. The dictionary says the word represents variations in the longitudinal motion or course of the center of mass of an airplane in flight. Joanna misspelled it "fugoid."

"I got nervous and said 'f' by accident," Joanna said during a break. "I was really nervous on stage. Now I'm calmed down."

The spelling bee got off to a swift start. A new policy this year encourages the 249 young spellers to spell a little faster than in past competitions. Judges this year have been given more guidance in disqualifying contestants who spell as slow as m-o-l-a-s-s-e-s.

"It's very easy to lose track of time," said director Paige Kimble.