Can You Spell E-T-U-I? Neither can we.

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We're all friends here, right? I can admit it... I'm a word nerd. I lost entire afternoons to reading the dictionary as a bored kid. I've been known to opine on a word's "connotations". I don't know any other languages, so English is pretty much all I've got.

And still I lost the spelling bee in eighth grade. On "colonel", of all words.

It's the easy ones that get you.

The AARP Spelling Bee, in its 15th year this year, may have amped up its prize money from $500 to $5,000, but it's still in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and still attracts the nerdiest of word nerds. They're teachers and professors and just regular Joes; many still keep in touch from past years, and all can tell you exactly the last word they couldn't spell.

"Etui," Scott Firebaugh told me. "E twee what?!" "Etui. It's a little box for jewelry. I never even saw it in the dictionary - I was too worried with the long words."

Firebaugh won last year, after coming in third in 2008 and second in 2009. He'd competed every year since first hearing about it in 2005. Now, he's not sure he's going back - "it falls on my 33rd wedding anniversary this year, and my wife would like to go somewhere besides Cheyenne" - but he says the competition is very tough, despite relaxed rules from the Scripps version. "Oh, it's pretty nerdy. But the camaraderie is strong." He met Dr. Bill Long, a jack of all trades with a knack for languages who's learning Mandarin Chinese right now - "and you know, he's just a normal guy. I told him - You weren't what I expected you to be. You're not a stuffy short guy."

Firebaugh makes long lists of words, categorized by suffixes, prefixes, strange combinations of letters, you name it. "Do you know the four words in the English language that end in 'nha'?" he asked me. "Caprinha?" was all I could come up with. But for all the study, some years a guy like Tony Johnson, a psychologist from the South, comes along, and Tony Johnson just up and decides he wants to enter the spelling bee, and Tony Johnson takes the written test they all have to take to qualify for the finals, and Tony Johnson is the only one who gets every single word right. "You never know," Firebaugh says.

Register for the bee here. 

(Photo via Flickr user hsing.)

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