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Meet the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion-turned-pronouncer

Jacques Bailly is a former Bee champion and has been the competition's head pronouncer for over two decades.
Jacques Bailly
Posted at 11:38 AM, May 28, 2024

In the world of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Jacques Bailly is a star. It's his voice that all the competitors hear as they stand on stage, ready to spell their hearts out.

"We've got a whole bunch of great kids," he told Scripps News. "And everybody's studying hard and learning a lot."

Bailly is the Bee's head pronouncer, which is a role he's held since 2003.

"Dr. Bailly is a celebrity here," said Corrie Loeffler, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. "You know, you see him walking through the halls — he's just being stopped for autographs right and left. And he is so great with all of our spellers. He just has a blast with them and they really look up to him."

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So, who checks the pronunciation of the pronouncer?

"I am corrected at every turn because first of all, I have right beside me Dr. [Brian] Sietsema, who used to be the pronunciation editor from Merriam-Webster," Bailly said. "If I say anything remotely problematic, I am immediately told, 'Look, stop.' So, it's very, very hard for me to make a mistake."

He also understands exactly what these spellers are dealing with because he's been in their shoes. Bailly is a former Bee champion, winning the competition back in 1980. He easily recalls his winning word.

"That's the only word I remember that I ever spelled and that's 'elucubrate,'" he said. "And it means to study, basically to study, to burn that midnight oil, sort of."

It's a pertinent word for this competition.

When he's not expertly pronouncing the seemingly unpronounceable, Bailly is a professor of classics at the University of Vermont. He returned to the buzz of the Bee for one main reason.

"I really just enjoyed being in the spelling bee," he said. "I enjoyed that competition. I enjoyed the camaraderie and I love words."

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As for this week's competition, Bailly offers this advice to those who want to follow in his steps and become a Bee champion.

"My biggest advice for spellers is that you should study really hard and learn as much as you can," Bailly said. "Spell it the way you think it should be spelled. Go with your gut and go with a simple spelling because most words in the end are sort of spelled the way they sound."

You can watch the Scripps National spelling bee semi-finals Wednesday at 8 pm ET on the ION channel. Tune into ION for the live finals of the bee Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

Scripps News is a subsidiary of the E.W. Scripps Company, which runs the Bee on a not-for-profit basis.