It’s been almost a week now, but we are still draying about the winning word in the 86th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Here’s a hint: After the definition as “a small mass of dough” and the question, “Is that from the German?” yes – the winning word was: knaidel! (or, as we affectionately call them, matzah balls). And it was spelled the same way the Word Mavens spell it: K-N-A-I-D-E-L. Woot! Woot! International spelling validation!
The 13 year-old winner, Arvind Mahankali, is from Queens, NY. We thought he must have run into a few knaidels in his day, but we read that he has never tasted the deliciousness of matzah ball soup. He’s just been studying those really difficult words of German origin that tripped him up three years ago when he was a finalist.
As the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words, we got to spells hundreds of Yiddish words the way we thought they should be spelled. But we know there is no official way to transliterate languages, like Yiddish, that are not written with Roman characters. We chose to spell words (mostly) the way they sound so that modern American readers could pronounce them correctly.
For the Yiddish for matzah ball, we settled on knaidel, and although we were thrilled that Scripps agreed with our spelling, Arvid wouldn’t have been wrong to spell it knaidle, knaydle or knaydel. Maybe it occurred to you, as it just occurred to us, that knaidel rhymes with dreidel, which leads to our worst-case scenario – the spelling of that December holiday with the menorah and the latkes. Is it Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hannukkah or Hanukah? We picked Hanukkah. We nixed the Ch version; we didn’t want anyone to say CHA-nu-kah.
To decide their official spelling, the Scripps Spelling Bee folks relied on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. So did we. We used it as a source for the more common Yiddish words that are used in American life.
Friends sent us links to The New York Times article on the knaidel controversy. They wanted to make sure we knew that our beloved matzah ball soup was the big news of the day, and they wanted to find out how we – The Word Mavens – felt about it.
But everyone thinks that he or she is a maven. We answered a tweet from a woman who called us out for not using the official transliterated Yiddish decided upon by linguists at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. YIVO says that the “preferred” spelling has historically been kneydl. But they would also prefer to spell Yiddish short story author Sholem Aleichem’s last name Aleykhem – and that has never caught on.
But back to Arvid’s big win: We think it’s unfair to try to trip up these young expert spellers with so many foreign words. After all, would a Jewish kid know that there are two Ks in tikki masala or a double A in naan?
In our book, all the kids who made it to the finals are khokhem (wise men)!