Published: Sept. 8, 2016 By

College of Arts and Sciences sponsors young competitor’s trip to national spelling finals, where he dabbled in both mordancy and jocosity


Cameron Keith is a consummate word guy. He’s also 10 years old. Cameron made it to the semifinals in the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee and was poised to advance to the finals when he was asked to spell “noncompos.”

He paused as he approached the final letters of the word, and he used an “a” for the final vowel.

Cameron Keith

Cameron Keith competes at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, this spring. Photo courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For the second year running, Cameron won the Barnes and Noble Boulder Regional Spelling Bee. And for the second time, the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences sponsored his trip to Washington, DC, to compete in the national bee.

Cameron says participating in spelling bees—a possibly quaint pursuit in the age of Twitter—has taught him a lot. The value of hard work is paramount, he says.

Now I use these strange words in conversation and when I write stories, and it’s really fun.”

“It’s one thing to hear teachers and your parents tell you that, but it doesn’t really mean anything until you experience it for yourself,” he adds.

Cameron has also learned how to keep calm under pressure and on national TV. “I think that will help me in life.”

Studying and staying calm under pressure certainly helped him this year, as he faced the cameras and correctly ticked off the spelling of words many adults never use: parquetry (inlaid wood in geometric patterns), cameist (a maker of cameos), and solenoglyphous (having tubular, erectile fangs).

To clinch the win in the Boulder Valley Spelling Bee this year, he nailed the spelling of mordancy, which is a biting and caustic quality of style. And among the 10 other words he spelled correctly in Boulder this year was “jocosity,” which is jesting or joking.

But it is no joke that knowing such words would facilitate Cameron’s success in college. That’s one purpose of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which aims to help students “improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.”

Cameron’s plan is to keep studying and returning to compete in the national bee as long as he can. He’s got time. Of 285 competitors this year, 267 were one to four years older than he is.

And for Cameron, the National Spelling Bee confers other advantages, such as fostering a love of language. “You love the words because they become such a big part of your life,” he says.

For months before the national bee, he spent at least an hour a day studying, learning new words, their definitions and their origins. “Now I use these strange words in conversation and when I write stories, and it’s really fun.”

Last year, Cameron recalled, his weakness was vocabulary. This year, “all my focus was on learning vocabulary,” and he got one of the highest scores in the bee in the vocabulary section. This coming year, he plans focus on spelling – especially of French words, “which I’m really bad at.”

But, he adds, “I have learnt that if I set a goal and do the work, I can achieve it, no matter what it is.”