Heard on the Hill

Beyer on the Words That Made His Spelling Bee Career

Virginia Democrat tries to win back his National Press Club Spelling Bee title

Members of the politicians’ team after the National Press Club Spelling Bee in 2015. From left, Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey, the winner Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. of Virginia, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota. (Courtesy Noel St. John/National Press Club)

In one of Washington’s most beloved nerdfests, members of Congress will take on members of the D.C. media in the National Press Club Spelling Bee on Tuesday.

Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., who won for the politicians’ team in 2015, has redemption on his mind.

“A very, very good guy who works for Gallup won overall for the press side,” the Virginia Democrat said, referring to last year’s returning champion Art Swift. “The nice part is it comes around once a year so you have a chance to come back.”

[Press Victorious Over Politicians in Spelling Bee]

Beyer was the first casualty of the congressional team at last year’s contest. He still remembers his streak-ending error.

“I lost last year on a word that I had never heard before, and promptly learned and forgot: ‘Allomorph.’ You can get annoyed with yourself when you know it, but if you don’t know how to spell a word you don’t know, you’re more forgiving,” he said.

In 2015, Beyer’s winning word was “apostasy.” President Barack Obama wrote him a letter at the time congratulating him on his win.

Then-president Barack Obama sent Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., a letter to congratulate him on winning the 2015 National Press Club spelling bee. (Courtesy Beyer's office)
President Barack Obama’s note to Beyer congratulating him on winning the 2015 National Press Club Spelling Bee. (Courtesy Beyer’s office)

The congressman recalled other words that have made a mark on his spelling career. (In 1964, he won the city spelling championship in Washington, D.C.)

“I can still tell you the words that I lost on in fifth, sixth, and seventh grade,” Beyer said. “I lost on the word ‘suite’ in sixth grade. In fifth grade, I lost on the world ‘coerce.’ I’m pretty lucky those were the most traumatic events I had as a kid.”

On that sixth grade loss, he said, “Afterwards, when they told me how to spell it, I said, ‘Hey, you pronounced it wrong,’” because he couldn’t believe the word was pronounced that way.

Beyer was also wrong on ‘address’ once in a spelling bee as a student, because he spelled it with one ‘d.’ Later, when he was learning to speak German, he learned that it’s spelled with one ‘d’ in that language.

“I was correct, but in the wrong language,” he said.

So, is the two-term congressman and former Virginia lieutenant governor studying for this year’s bee?

“How do you study 3,000 pages?” Beyer said, citing the length of the dictionary.

He said his best shot is to “trust a lifetime of reading.” But spelling is now always on his mind.

“Day in and day out, I find myself very alert to all the words that I hear and quietly ask myself, ‘Do I know how to spell that?’” he said. “Or something that surprises me.”

While members of both parties are invited to represent the politicians’ team, only Democrats competed last year. But this year, Beyer will be joined by at least one Republican: North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx. Other confirmed participants include Reps. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Ted Deutch of Florida, Scott Peters of California and Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

[Jeff Flake Fears No Contest at Spelling Bee]

“It’s fun. It’s a really nice evening,” Beyer said. “What’s terrific is the two sides are relatively tribal. We’re rooting hard for our own members. It’s bipartisan and bicameral. Everyone is rooting for both sides.”

He may try another tactic this year as he attempts to gain back the title.

“They do serve alcohol and I think this year I will have a drink beforehand,” he said.

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