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By Ian Simpson
OXON HILL, Maryland (Reuters) - Sometimes-nervous contestants in the United States' Scripps National Spelling Bee launched two days of competition on Wednesday, facing the new challenge of not only having to spell obscure words correctly, but also knowing what they mean.
A total of 281 contestants aged 8 to 14 from across the United States and other countries took to the stage for a preliminary spelling round in the spelling bee. The finals are on Thursday night.
For the first time since it began in 1927, the contest is requiring young spellers in preliminary and semifinal rounds to take a computerized vocabulary test. Organizers say it is part of the Bee's commitment to deepening contestants' command of English.
Sixteen spellers were eliminated in a first onstage round, with a second round to come for survivors. They stumbled on such words as "sinecure," a paid job with little work; "weissnichtwo," an imaginary place; and "yannigan," player in an individualized baseball game.
Some spellers were visibly nervous before advancing to the microphone in the packed auditorium, clutching arms to sides, jiggling feet or crossing themselves.
"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, N.C., who correctly spelled "panglossian," or extreme optimism.
"It's pretty cool. I've made a lot of friends," he said.
Owen Duffy, 13, from Fort Johnson Middle School in Charleston, S.C., 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 said slowly. He barely finished spelling it, incorrectly, before his time ran out.
Almost all the contestants asked for the origin of the word, the kind of word and a definition, which is allowed as an aid to spelling. They then wrote it out on the palm of their hands with a fingertip while spelling aloud.
Since 2002, a written or computer spelling test has been a component that, along with onstage spelling, factored in determining which spellers advanced to the semi-finals.
This year, competitors will advance to the semi-finals and finals based on their onstage spelling, as well as computer-based spelling and vocabulary questions. Vocabulary evaluation will count for half of a speller's overall score.
Contestants said the multiple-choice test taken on Tuesday was fairly easy for them. 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."
"It was multiple choice, so you could narrow it down," Born said. She and Wang had met at last year's contest and stayed in touch through e-mail.
Griffin said the test was "a little hard. I knew how to spell the words but now having to know them makes the challenge a little harder."
Paige Kimble, the Bee's executive director who won the competition in 1981, told a news conference the decision to add the vocabulary test had come after about a year and a half of discussion.
A key element was support from spellers and their parents who believed that adding the test would increase the tournament's prestige, she said.
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 is taking place at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington. It is being broadcast by ESPN.
The contestants range from third to eighth graders, with 116 speaking more than one language. The group is 52 percent girls and 48 percent boys, organizers said.
(Editing by Scott Malone, Dan Grebler and Andrew Hay)