By Lily Kuo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A 6-year-old girl became the youngest participant ever to compete in the preliminary round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Wednesday, getting off to a successful start by spelling "dirigible."
Lori Anne Madison, 6, of Woodbridge, Virginia, is the youngest contestant to qualify for the spelling bee, according to the Scripps website. She is among 278 competitors, including three finalists from last year.
Madison was given the word "dirigible" to spell and, after lowering the microphone to meet her height, asked for a definition. Once she got it, she promptly spelled the word and walked off with a smile.
Madison and the other contestants, aged up to 15, are competing to be one of 50 to go on to the spelling bee's semi-final round on Thursday.
They spell words on stage for an audience and live television at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, a few miles south of Washington, D.C.
The contestants correctly spelled words such as "philately," the study of postage stamps and postal history; "hafiz" a term for someone who has memorized the Koran; and "flibbertigibbet," to describe a flighty person. The competition began with "witticism."
Three of last year's finalists have returned, including Arvind Mahankali, 12, who goes to school in New York City, and tied for third place in last year's contest. He correctly spelled "garibaldi," a type of blouse.
Nabeel Rahman, 14, who attends school in East Amherst, New York and Samuel Estep, 14, of Berryville, Virginia, placed 10th and 13th in 2011, respectively. Estep is home-schooled.
Rahman spelled the musical term "coloratura" and Estep spelled "tahini," a paste made from sesame seeds.
The spellers employed a range of strategies from writing out words on the palms of their hand with their fingers to asking for alternate pronunciations. Some took long pauses to think while others spelled in a burst of letters and ran back to their seats.
Words that the contestants slipped up on included "ascetic," to describe austerity or self-denial; "blasé," to be apathetic to pleasure or excitement; and "gnathonic," to mean fawning.
The young contestants score three points for correct answers in two rounds of spelling on Wednesday.
Based on their scores as well as a computer test taken by all contenders, the top 50 will go on to compete in the semi-finals.
Contestants are eliminated once they misspell a word. The final round is on Thursday night.
The spelling bee champion wins a $30,000 cash prize from Scripps, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond from Merriam-Webster and a $5,000 scholarship from the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, among other prizes, according to the Scripps website.
The spelling bee is held by the media group E.W. Scripps Company and other sponsors and is being broadcast live by ESPN.
Last year's winner was 14-year-old Sukanya Roy from South Abington Township, Pennsylvania, who spelled "cymotrichous," used to describe having wavy hair.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Bill Trott)