Here's a Halloween treat for you word nerds: the Visual Thesaurus spelling bee, an online version of the traditional American schoolroom contest. You'll need to turn up your speakers, listen to a recording of each word, refer to the definitions in the margin, then guess the spelling. After two unsuccessful guesses, you'll receive hints.
Launched in the summer, the VT Bee has already attracted 15,000 players who have attempted to spell about 500,000 words. A sophisticated algorithm adjusts the level of the challenge to the player's ability. VT's executive producer, Benjamin Zimmer, explains on the Oxford University Press blog:
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. As the player continues to spell, the quiz narrows in on his or her score, on a scale from 200 to 800. A 200-level speller will get quizzed on the easiest words, but 800-level spellers are in for a fiendish challenge[.] ...
There’s some sophisticated data analysis going on behind the scenes to score both players and words. 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.
Be forewarned: even very good spellers will find themselves challenged by about the tenth word.
Anyone can play, but if you want to show up on the Top Ten list you have to be a Visual Thesaurus subscriber. (A one-year subscription costs $19.95, which also—shameless plug—gives you access to all the articles, including my own.)