Jacques Bailly, eclectic master of words, ushers contestants through National Spelling Bee
We know him as a kind-spirited board member and longtime friend of Young Writers Project, but Jacques Bailly is known to TV audiences as the official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee — a role which, he says, "lands me in the national spotlight once a year."
In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, 2023 Scripps Bee champion Dev Shah, a ninth-grader from Largo, Fla., gave an insider’s look at the spelling bee, with a special tribute to Jacques, who has been the bee's pronouncer for 20 years.
In the piece, “I won the National Spelling Bee. This is what it takes to master spelling,” (Washington Post, Nov. 28, 2023), Shah explains that the spelling bee encourages spellers to learn the mechanics of words, and so he asks a lot of questions to reach the correct answer.
“Jacques Bailly, the longtime pronouncer for the Scripps bee, answers investigative questions about a given word,” Shah writes. “Each question plays a role in guessing a word correctly. Asking about the language of origin helps narrow which roots to ask about next. For example, in my winning word, psammophile, Bailly told me both parts are Greek. That eliminated about half of the roots, since most roots are either Greek or Latin. The definition offered more clues to the right root in question. A psammophile is an organism that lives in sandy soils. Remembering the language of origin, I thought of Greek roots that mean sand. This type of linguistic deduction takes practice, and the best spellers can perform it instantly.”
Jacques was one of those “best spellers” when he won the National Spelling Bee in 1980 as a 14-year-old teen from Denver, Colorado. His winning word was elucubrate (from Latin, to work out or express with studious effort). He so enjoyed his experience with the spelling bee that he returned as an associate pronouncer in 1990, and he became the official pronouncer in 2003.
A deep love of words led Jacques to study ancient Greek, Latin, Arabic and Chinese, and along the way he also picked up German as a Fulbright scholar in Switzerland. He earned his bachelor’s degree in classics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Cornell University in ancient philosophy. Jacques started teaching at the University of Vermont in 1997, where he is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the classics program.
Jacques says many of his students at UVM are unaware of his other life – that he appears live each year on the televised national spelling bee on ION Television or that he starred as himself in the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee about the competition. Occasionally, he says, a student will come upon his Wikipedia page and discover that “he’s the spelling bee guy.” And word will spread around the classroom.
At Young Writers Project, we know Jacques as the ever-helpful board member who is always ready to pitch in, and always ready to share a good story. He brightens our board meetings with his perceptive observations and understated sense of humor. His love and knowledge of words far surpasses that of all of us, and yet he never makes us feel like we can't keep up. Instead, he welcomes us into his world of words to share the fun and joy of it all. And although our resident word wizard is generally quite low-key, he sometimes surprises us by dressing the part. Recently, he arrived at a board meeting on his bicycle wearing the most elaborate, Seussian-style, woven hat fit for a wizard. He said he likes the way the hat, created for him by his wife Leslyn Hall, sparks curiosity and conversations with people he might not have otherwise had the chance to meet. That's the Jacques we have come to know and appreciate at YWP.
A last word goes to the team at Scripps. In 2019, Jacques was honored with a special Scripps trophy that included this citation: “Dr. Bailly is more than the voice of the Bee. He is the face, heart and soul of the Bee. We thank him for his years of dedication to the program and the millions of spellers who are inspired by his voice and his encouragement.”
Thank you, Jacques Bailly, for the inspiration and encouragement you give to young people, including YWP's Elise Cournoyer, who has represented Vermont for the last two years at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. We're honored to have you on our board.
[Photo: Jacques Bailly, YWP board member, UVM professor, and announcer for the Scripps National Spelling Bee; photo courtesy of the Scripps National Spelling Bee]