Zaila Avant-garde Spells ‘Murraya’ to Make Bee History

Zaila, a 14-year-old from Harvey, La., won on the word “murraya.” She became the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in almost 100 years of contests.,

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The last word, after hundreds of competitors fell to some of the dictionary’s worst verbal terrors, was murraya.

When Zaila Avant-garde, 14, spelled it correctly on Thursday night, she put her hands to her head, beamed and twirled, her arms outstretched and confetti raining across the stage.

Zaila, 14, an eighth grader from near New Orleans, had just won the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming the first Black American student to take the cup after 10 other finalists stumbled in the competition’s final rounds.

It was a remarkable achievement for a girl who only began spelling competitively two years ago. Not only did she dissect word after word on spelling’s biggest stage, she had already set three Guinness world records for dribbling, bouncing and juggling basketballs. All before the ninth grade.

“It’s super exciting to win because now I get to get a nice trophy, which is the best part of any win,” Zaila told an interviewer on ESPN, which broadcast the tournament. (She also wins a $50,000 prize.)

Zaila was also the first student from Louisiana to win the bee. The first Black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, who won the bee in 1998.

Zaila’s victory was celebrated on social media by the likes of the first lady, Jill Biden, who attended the bee, and Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Talk about #blackgirlmagic!” Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans said on Twitter. “We’re all so proud of you!!”

It was a stark contrast to the last Scripps bee, in 2019, when eight winners claimed the trophy as co-champions. (The pandemic forced the cancellation of the bee in 2020.)

At the end, the contest came down to two girls: Zaila and Chaitra Thummala, 12, a sixth grader from San Francisco.

The last few words were rattled off in a swift back-and-forth between them and the pronouncer, Jacques A. Bailly.

First was fewtrils (things of little value), which Chaitra, got right. Then retene (a chemical isolated especially from pine tar, rosin oil and various fossil resins but usually prepared from abietic acid), which Zaila spelled correctly. And finally neroli oil (a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly of the sour orange and used especially in cologne and as a flavoring).

Which Chaitra got wrong, exchanging the O in “neroli” for an E.

That gave Zaila a chance to win it all with one more correct word. Throughout the competition, she appeared to know nearly every word and its origins.

At first, however, she seemed flummoxed by murraya, grimacing a little.

“Does this word contain like the English word murray which would be the name of a comedian?” Zaila asked, referring to the actor, Bill Murray, and drawing laughs from the pronouncer and the judges.

She began to spell it, stopped herself, and asked for the language of origin.

Then, as with so many words before, she needed little time to solve its structure. She spelled the word correctly.

Zaila attributed her win, in part, to luck. One of the few words that rattled her on Thursday was “nepeta,” a unique herb, that The New York Times described in 2014 as “intoxicating to cats but relaxing to humans.” It was a word that Zaila said she had struggled with before.

“I got it this time,” Zaila said in a televised interview after her win.

Zaila, who just finished eighth grade in her hometown, Harvey, La., showed a prowess for spelling at 10, when her father, who had been watching the National Spelling Bee, asked her how to spell the winning word: marocain.

Zaila spelled it perfectly. Then, he asked her to spell the winning words going back to 1999. She spelled nearly all of them correctly and was able to tell him the books where she had seen them.

“He was a bit surprised by that,” Zaila said in an interview before the finals.

But she did not start spelling competitively until two years ago, when she asked her parents if she could compete in a regional spelling bee.

She got as far as the third round of the 2019 national tournament when she was tripped up by the word “vagaries.”

Zaila, whose father changed her surname from Heard to Avant-garde in homage to the jazz great John Coltrane, has for years found other avenues of success. A gifted basketball player, she set three Guinness world records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously (six basketballs for 30 seconds); the most basketball bounces (307 bounces in 30 seconds); and the most bounce juggles in one minute (255 using four basketballs).

In 2018, she appeared in a Steph Curry commercial that showcased her skills. She also learned how to speed read, and figured out that she could divide five-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in her head, a skill she said she has a hard time explaining.

“It’s like asking a millipede how they walk with all those legs,” said Zaila, who has three younger brothers.

Winning the bee became her next goal.

For decades, spelling bee organizers have steadily made the words more difficult, veering into the realms of medicine, art, zoology and antiquity.

This year was especially difficult, said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”

“I have the dictionary open in front of me, and I edited this dictionary, and I have not spelled any of these words right on the first try,” she said.

Words that foiled spellers included chrysal, athanor, cloxacillin, heliconius, torticollis, platylepadid and gewgaw. Several spellers were eliminated in a round of questions about word meanings, which Ms. Stamper said was a return to spelling bees’ roots.

When bees started in the 19th century, she said, they were held in schoolrooms as part of a broader vocabulary exercise. “It wasn’t this gamified thing that we do now,” she said.

In one of the more dramatic moments of the night, a word given to the only competitor from outside the United States, Roy Seligman of Nassau, the Bahamas, went to a video review.

Roy, 12, was asked to spell the word ambystoma (a genus of common salamanders confined to America). Initially, a judge ruled that he spelled it correctly — but then the judges realized he may have said the letter I instead of Y, and for several tense moments they huddled over a video replay of his spelling.

Ultimately, he could be heard on the recording misspelling the word.

Maggie Astor contributed reporting.

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