Can You Spell 'Nirvana'?
New online spelling bee uses mathematical models to separate the good spellers from the bad.
New York, October 29, 2008 — From the success of movies like Akeelah and the Bee and Spellbound to the national broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, it's clear that people of all ages have a passion for spelling. And now a challenging new online quiz has shown just how passionate they can be: the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee from Thinkmap, launched this past summer, has already attracted 15,000 players, who have tried their hand at spelling a grand total of 500,000 words.
"English is a notoriously hard language to spell," says Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer. "But everybody from 9 to 90 loves a good challenge, and the success of the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee proves how much people enjoy matching their wits against the odd and outrageous rules of English spelling."
What makes the Bee so addictive for spellers of all ages and abilities? It's been designed to be adaptive, so the more words that are spelled correctly, the more difficult the words become. And conversely, if you're not a great speller, the words will get easier and easier. That way a player will always be quizzed at the appropriate skill level -- from the orthographically challenged to the most expert spellers.
As more and more players try the Bee, the game has steadily improved based on data collected on how words are spelled. Words are being continuously reanalyzed for difficulty based on how spellers fare. Every five minutes, words are rescored for difficulty taking into account the latest data from the Bee spellers. That means there's an increasingly better fit to different skill levels, making it a challenging and educational experience for all.
The Bee takes advantage of high-quality audio pronunciations of tens of thousands of words, especially created for the Visual Thesaurus. Each round, a player hears the recording of the word and see its definition. As the player continues to spell, the quiz narrows in on his or her score, on a scale from 200 to 800. If you're a 200-level speller, you'll get quizzed on the easiest words, but 800-level spellers should be prepared for a fiendish challenge.
Thinkmap has made the Bee into a one-of-a-kind online experience, with a pleasing interface on the front end and sophisticated data analysis on the back end. Using intricate algorithms and curve-fitting models, the Bee is able to determine not just how difficult a word is to spell, but how well a word is at discriminating good spellers from bad spellers. That way the Bee can quickly zero in on a player's skill level, in much the same way that computer-adaptive tests like the GRE and GMAT tailor themselves to test-takers' abilities.
Are you smarter than a 5th-grade speller?
Based on the ever-growing data accumulated from participants in the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee, it's possible to know precisely which words are easy to spell and which are difficult. "The toughest words are downright diabolical," says Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer. "They might leave you feeling faineant, as if you're under siege from a mangonel, or they might just reduce you to palilalia."
Here are some examples of Bee words ranging from easiest to most difficult.
200-250 (Extremely Easy)
  • people
  • country
  • cyclone
  • composure
  • navigator
250-350 (Very Easy)
  • stirrup
  • domineering
  • lymphatic
  • acronym
  • nirvana
350-450 (Fairly Easy)
  • monotonous
  • ultimatum
  • versatility
  • animosity
  • horrendous
450-550 (Average)
  • emblazon
  • cordovoan
  • effete
  • springbok
  • ennui
For advanced spellers only...
550-650 (Fairly Hard)
  • badinage (frivolous banter)
  • phlox (a North American flowering plant)
  • fleabane (a hairy Eurasian herb)
  • fossorial (adapted for digging)
  • glasnost (Soviet policy allowing freer discussion of social issues)
650-750 (Very Hard)
  • tercentenary (300th anniversary)
  • yacca (a West Indian evergreen)
  • grissino (a long slender crusty breadstick)
  • carioca (a lively ballroom dance that resembles the samba)
  • dirndl (a full skirt with a gathered waistband)
750-800 (Extremely Hard)
  • jaconet (a lightweight cotton cloth)
  • puerperal (relating to childbirth)
  • faineant (disinclined to work or exertion)
  • mangonel (medieval artillery used during sieges)
  • palilalia (pathological condition in which a word is rapidly and involuntarily repeated)
How are good spellers separated from bad spellers?
When Thinkmap analyzes the data of people playing the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee, there's much more to be learned than simply how many people spell a given word right or wrong. Information is also collected about how different kinds of spellers are doing: if a lot of good spellers get a word wrong, then it counts for a lot more towards the word's difficulty than if poor spellers are getting it wrong.
For each word, a graph is generated to plot the distribution of right and wrong answers across different skill levels. Then a curve is drawn to fit the data. If that curve rises very steeply, then the word is a good "discriminator": it's an accurate way to separate the good spellers from the bad spellers.
Take two relatively easy words: harried and horrendous. Both of them are about the same difficulty level: 350 on our scale of 200 to 800. Here are their graphs, with player's skill levels on the x-axis and the frequency of correct answers on the y-axis:
As the graphs illustrate, the curve for horrendous rises much more steeply than the one for harried. So if you spell horrendous incorrectly, it's a very good bet that your skill level is below 350. And if you spell it right, then you probably can handle words at a level above 350. Each time a player spells a word right or wrong in the Bee, that gets added to the growing pool of data about each word's difficulty and ability to discriminate good spellers from bad spellers.

A free demonstration of the Visual Thesaurus is available at Type in a word, click "Look It Up," and you're rewarded with a colorful, interactive map of the meaning of your entry. Every word and meaning can be "clicked," which encourages exploration and discovery. Connected to a database with nearly 140,000 words and related meanings, Visual Thesaurus search results are truly inspiring.

For more information please contact: Ben Zimmer <>
Phone: 212-381-0550

Thinkmap. Visualize Complex Information.