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Little Miss Bee’s Knees is Spelling Queen

What’s the purpose behind all this vocabulary testing, I wonder ...

Gulf News

Here’s a question whose answer I didn’t know until a few days ago. “Who are the jacamars?” I’m glad it didn’t turn up in a test paper in the day when I sat for examinations, trembling with trepidation and the fading hope that all my cramming might have been insufficient. Had “Who are the jacamars?” been asked back then I would have failed in my response outright. As it stands, decades later, I failed utterly as well. I thought the jacamars were a family.

This can be blamed on what psychologists call ‘association’ because in my mind I’d ‘associated’ the jacamars with the Jaikumars, a family I used to know. Turns out they are not even remotely related, although Mrs Jaikumar, not to sound unkind, did play the part of ‘sticky beak’ admirably.

She’s the one who, whenever we ran into each other in the supermarket, would carry on a brief but pleasant conversation. Thing is, all through the talk her eyes would be on my plastic shopping bag, X-raying the contents. So passers-by (another word that tripped me up in grade six; asked to give the plural of passer-by, I had without second thought put down passer-bys.) ... but to recover my original train of thought ... if passers-by in the supermarket thought Mrs Jaikumar was conversing with a plastic shopping bag they could have been forgiven. And to get back to that even more original train of thought ... the jacamars, I discovered, are indeed a family — of birds — from South and Central America; a species characterised by a long, pointed bill (no allusions to Mrs Jaikumar here, seriously) and an iridescent green plumage.

Having stumped me with that question, my prankster mate Barney who is sipping coffee with me this bleak morning asks if I’ve heard the word ‘sevruga’. I confess right away that I haven’t. Several, severance, sever, Seville orange and even Severine (who won the Eurovision song contest in 1971 with the song ‘Un banc, un arbre, une rue’) these I know, but ‘sevruga’ sounds foreign to me, I tell Barney, who nods in agreement because he knows the answer already.

I soon learn that sevruga might be a type of sturgeon fish, or a kind of caviar — a very expensive kind made from its eggs. Right. So what’s the purpose behind all this vocabulary testing, I wonder.

Normally I shouldn’t need to because Barney is the type — and he knows it — who likes to show people up. So I’m assuming that these are just random words he picked out of one of his six hundred dictionaries to hurl at me this morning and witness what I look like when uncomfortable.

Before I could ask him his motive he says: “You could be forgiven for not knowing the jacamars and sevruga, but this one you surely must know, Kev.”

The word is ‘jnana’. It’s a word from India, I say, immediately, and Barney nods encouragingly. At the back of my mind I wonder if he, in his prankster fashion, has somehow altered the word, put in an extra syllable ... I wonder if he meant to say ‘jana’ as in ‘jana gana mana’ the opening words of the Indian national anthem, which, come to think of it would sound like it were sung with reverb if one were to sing it with Barney’s version, ‘jnana, gnana, mnana...’

No, my know-it-all mate informs me that ‘jnana’ is a Sanskrit word that refers to someone having a higher level of knowledge. Well, that rules me out. “I hadn’t a clue, to be honest,” I tell Barney. “As it happens, a five-year-old child in America won the spelling bee in her state with that very word, Kev, after correctly spelling before that the words jacamar and sevruga,” he tells me.

A five-year-old? Honest to goodness. And Barney is not joking. I read about it on the news later. At that age, I was only just getting past ‘rat’ and ‘cat’ and slowly heading towards words like ‘snail’.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.