Dashed at the Define-a-Thon

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1192634447Rabb Hall at the Boston Public Library was calm before last night’s Define-a-Thon. Unfortunately, the huge crowds host Steve Kleinedler has seen weren’t drawn to last night’s event, but there were still plenty of participants ready to show off their vocabulary for a few spectators. Boston Daily was among the combatants. We walked in with a swagger, but we left wishing we’d read more than the nutritional information on our Popsicle boxes.

The rules of the game were simple. Kleinedler would give a definition and four possible options for the word. If the answer was correct, the person remained on stage. If the answer was incorrect, the loser returned to the audience. The last person standing would be crowned the winner, and would be presented with an American Heritage Dictionary.

The first contestant was given the definition for “xylophone,” which he correctly identified. That’s easy, we gloated to ourselves. Certainly, the dictionary would soon be ours.

After the first round, Kleinedler moved on to Deck Two, which features slightly more difficult words. An experienced Define-a-Thonner was given this definition:

One of the circular ridges or convolutions of a fingerprint.

She chose “whirl,” but the correct answer was “whorl.” Many of the definitions revolved around math and science– last night’s contest featured two definitions about triangles, and we correctly identified “calyx.” We returned to our seat with a smile, but there was still a sense of anxiety. Our sense of intellectual superiority was being challenged by a tattooed lexicographer, and we didn’t like it.

Our confidence was further shaken when Kleinedler dropped a bombshell. The next round would include questions that required identifying the best synonym or antonym of a given word. He didn’t mention that twist when we spoke to him last week.

Of course, when we approached the microphone, Kleinedler began with “What is the best synonym for ‘quiescent‘?. . .”

Our mind went blank. We realized our confidence was just braggadocio. Why didn’t he ask us for a synonym for braggadocio? Instead of doing the smart thing and asking him to repeat the question to stall for time, we jumped on the most obvious answer, “agreeable.”

“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect.”

We took our seat in the audience, stunned. How did it all go wrong? How did the next contestant get ‘pernicious‘ when we got ‘quiescent’? We stared at the dictionary, feeling inordinately sad that it would not be ours. How the Define-a-Thon attracts followers is clear to us now– after the bruising your ego takes, you want to come back and validate yourself with a win.

After we were eliminated, Kleinedler broke out the dreaded Deck Three, which the lexicographer described as “impossibly hard.” It wasn’t impossible for Howard Golick, an elderly man who was reading Confessions of a Shopaholic before the event began. He correctly identified ‘dynatron‘ and walked away with the dictionary.

“You were thinking of ‘acquiesce’,” Kleinedler told us later. “But ‘quiescent’ means to be at rest. Look at a box of Popsicles. They’re called ‘the quiescently frozen confection.'”

It’s of little comfort to us as we nurse our bruised egos today. We’ll be at the next local Define-a-Thon, after reading the packaging of all our snack foods and looking up any obscure words we find.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2007/10/17/dashed-at-the-define-a-thon/