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By Ian Simpson
OXON HILL, Maryland (Reuters) - The young contestants in the United States' Scripps National Spelling Bee on Wednesday relied on coping strategies from prayer to song to cool their nerves as they tackled some of the more obscure words in the English language.
This year's contest posed a new challenge for the 281 contestants aged 8 to 14. It was no longer enough to be able to spell "jicama," "weissnichtwo" and "piloncillo." The contestants also needed to know that the words referred to a root vegetable, an imaginary place and a type of sugar, respectively.
Of a field of 281 contestants from all 50 U.S. states and other territories, 42 made it through Wednesday's two rounds of onstage spelling, which followed a new computerized test of spelling and vocabulary.
The semi-finalists included three contestants with perfect scores from computerized tests - Pranav Sivakumar, 13, an eighth-grader from Barrington Middle School in Tower Lakes, Illinois; Grace Remmer, 14, a home-schooled eighth-grader from St. Augustine, Florida; and Arvind Mahankali, 13, of Bayside Hills, New York.
"I'm feeling relieved right now, because during the test I wasn't sure about how I'd do," Mahankali, an eighth-grader at Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School, who finished third last year, told Reuters.
Asked if he was feeling pressure, he said: "I just take everything step by step. I just concentrate on getting the next word right."
The semi-finalists take part in another computerized test on Wednesday evening and then spell onstage on Thursday afternoon. The finals are on Thursday night.
Some contestants were visibly nervous before advancing to the microphone in the packed auditorium, twitching their fingers, plucking clothing or crossing themselves. At least one left the stage nearly in tears after misspelling a word.
"I felt a little nervous before I got on stage, but once I was on stage I was OK," said Matthew Griffin, a 12-year-old home-schooled eighth-grader from Bailey, North Carolina, who correctly spelled "panglossian," or extreme optimism.
Owen Duffy, 13, from Fort Johnson Middle School in Charleston, South Carolina, did not fare as well.
Given "langlauf" to spell, the seventh-grader asked chief pronouncer Jacques Bailly for the pronunciation of the German word for cross-country skiing several times.
"Langlauf? Langlauf? Langlauf?" Duffy repeated slowly. He barely finished spelling it, incorrectly, before his time ran out.
Katie Danis, 13, of Gastonia, North Carolina, made an unusual request when asked to spell "stabilimeter," a device for measuring stability.
"Would it be OK if I sing the letters? It would help me," she asked Bailly. Given the go-ahead, the seventh-grader then drew applause by trilling the letters.
For the first time since it began in 1927, the contest requires young spellers in preliminary and semi-final rounds to take a vocabulary test. Organizers say it is part of the Bee's commitment to deepening knowledge of the English language.
This year, competitors advance to the semi-finals and finals based on onstage spelling, as well as computer-based spelling and vocabulary questions.
Contestants said the multiple-choice test taken on Tuesday was fairly easy. Amber Born, 14, a home-schooled eighth-grader from Marblehead, Massachusetts, said after the first round of spelling that it "was good, it was fun."
Standing next to Born, Katherine Wang, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from the Qooco School in Beijing, called it "nerve-wracking." Both she and Born advanced to the semi-finals.
The contestants hail from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and Defense Department schools around the world. Some contestants come from the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.
The Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington is being broadcast by ESPN. The champion wins $30,000, a trophy and other prizes.
Organizers had originally said that 41 spellers would advance to the semi-finals. They raised a contestant's score and added her to the semi-finalists after determining that two words on the computerized test had alternate spellings.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone, Dan Grebler and Eric Beech)