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How Do You Spell Phthisis? Ask Bill Long

"Expressing life through words is only one way to get at and exposit meaning in the universe, but it is a good way for many people to begin to understand reality. ... I am convinced that the real roots of creative thought lie in understanding the building blocks of our thoughts, which are the words we select in which to encase our ideas." -- Bill Long, Willamette University law professor, in one of the 1,900 essays on his Web site

Bill Long has taken three trips to the National Senior Spelling Bee, placing second during his first two attempts and winning third at this summer's competition in June. He has spelled seemingly impossible words like "xebec" and "phthisis" in front of an audience, and he has read all 1,459 pages of the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.

But ask the Willamette College of Law visiting professor about his hobby, and he'll tell you he's not a speller -- he's a wordsmith. A speller is someone concerned only with how every word is spelled, he says. A wordsmith wants to know what the word means, how it developed, where it came from, how it has changed. Long carries pages of yellow legal paper covered with scribbled lists of words, ones that piqued his interest while he was reading the dictionary. "I'll come to a word and go, 'That looks so fascinating. I've got to check that out.' It becomes a way to complete my appreciation of the world, to learn what people call things."

His tone turns philosophical as he continues, pointing to the Latin and Greek dictionaries he uses when he is studying a word's origin. "I make the lists, and then I get lost in the dictionaries. Then I write essays on them."

Essays, indeed. Long started a Web site in 1994 to catalog and share his writings on words and his other interests: Shakespeare, law, the Bible's Book of Job, his travels. He now has more than 1,900 essays on the site, and typically adds about two more each day. Many take on serious topics, sharing some of his innermost thoughts.

But many others keep a light-hearted tone, like an essay he wrote on the prefix "sph," which begins: "Let's look at this exercise today as if we were having a block party. Neighbors don't necessarily have anything in common; they work different places, are often of different political and religious affiliations and keep different hours. Yet, sometimes they come out of their homes and even share a beer or hot dog. So, let's explore a few (not all) of the words in the 'SPH' neighborhood."

Dictionary in Hand
Long approaches his word studies with a sense of humor and is attracted to "fun" words, he says -- ones with interesting origins or that are derived from words with different meanings. Like vomitory (a passageway into an amphitheater) or uncorseted (to be uninhibited). He has written several essays on words that he finds amusing or interesting but that won't appear in the National Senior Spelling Bee because they are too "gross" or they make people squeamish. For the latter, he writes: "All of [these] have the same suffix -- ectomy -- which means a cutting or slicing. While we take great delight in carving roasts or slicing cheese, not many of us want to spend much time thinking about slicing off vital organs. Hence, our squeamishness. But I am fascinated with 'cutting' terms."

Long spends numerous hours reading his dictionaries to prepare for the bee, which is sponsored by the Wyoming chapter of AARP and is open to people age 50 and older. The bee starts with a written round of 100 words, followed by an oral round for the top 16 spellers.

It's not exactly the same as the well-known bee for youths -- the seniors sit at tables during the oral round, rather than dramatically standing on a stage in front of an audience -- but competitors really get into it, Long says. "There is applause at times when someone gets a word that people didn't know, or one they're glad they didn't get. The organizers try to make it more casual, saying 'We're seniors.' But they're all competitive. They wouldn't be there if they weren't competitive."

In fact, this year's winner, computer programmer Hal Prince, told Long that he had carefully studied the professor's online blog to figure out how to beat him. "He figured out that I was more of a wordsmith than a speller, and he could beat me because he's a pure speller," Long says. "I guess that's the downside of having a blog. If people are really interested, they can figure you out."

The final word to trip up Long this year was tryptophan, an essential amino acid distributed in protein. He replaced the "y" with an "i." Now, he spells the word with ease. "You never forget how to spell the words you miss," he says.

Man of Many Interests
Teaching law is Long's fourth career. He recalls that at age 17, he thought he wanted to study law or religion. He initially chose the latter. Long was a religion professor at Reed College in Portland in the 1980s, and indulged in his love of writing for a year by crafting editorials for The Oregonian newspaper. Then he switched careers and became a Presbyterian pastor. "In the mid-90s, I just sort of lost interest in it," he says. "I found that my interest in law, which I had at 17, had returned."

After teaching history and government for six years at a small college in Kansas, Long returned to Oregon and attended Willamette law school, graduating in 1999. His first law job was at Stoel Rives LLP, a large and well-known Portland firm. In 2003, he left the firm for Willamette, and now he teaches insurance law, sales law and jurisprudence.

At heart he is a lover of words, history and using his mind to work through issues, so Long sees his transition to law as a natural one. "Law is just making a case based on chronology. To be a good lawyer means you want to work things out verbally," he says. "Here I am at 54, and I have a lot of interests -- law, religion, words. I'm sort of a general humanist, I guess you could say."