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Omaha Magazine

The Beauty of Words

Aug 17, 2014 09:00AM ● By David Williams
When interviewing a spelling whiz like Grace Johanningsmeier, it’s almost impossible to avoid lapsing into the role of a spelling bee participant.

The road to Washington D.C. and the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the 14-year-old who recently completed the 8th grade at Westside Middle School was paved with words like ‘rongeur’ (a poet), ‘calumny’ (slander) and ‘erinaceous.’

Erinaceous? Hold on a moment, Grace, you’ll have to help me out here. Can you give me a definition? “Something along the lines of being like a hedgehog—of having the qualities of a hedgehog,” Johanningsmeier replies. Origin? “Latin.” Can you use it in a sentence for me?

“That boy in my math class,” she explains, “was described by a girl as being like a hedgehog. I was able to add, ‘Hey, there’s a word for that! Erinaceous!’ That’s one of the cool things about words. The oddest ones can pop up when you least expect them!”

Johanningsmeier comes from a long line of Westside Middle School students who have advanced to the grandest of stages when it comes s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g (French, but with roots in Old English and German…to name, write, or otherwise give the letters, in order, of a word…two can play at this game, Grace, even if only at the novice level).

And Johanningsmeier’s word-craft lineage may also be traced in bloodlines. Her older sister, Emma, a freshman-to-be at Stanford, spelled her way to the nation’s capital in 2010. The young women are the daughters of Chuck and Gina Johanningsmeier. He’s a (surprise!) English professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Gina is an International Student Advisor at the same institution.

Grace, who also speaks German and is learning Spanish, doesn’t just study words, she feels them.

“Words have the power to describe the human experience,” she says. “When you find the perfect word for something, there’s that ‘Oh!’ experience that makes you feel so good.”

And Johanningsmeier’s favorite word? Her favorite “Oh!” experience?

“Velleity,” she replies without hesitation. “It describes a wish that isn’t strong enough to act upon. It’s just the perfect word. Beautiful, right?”

Johanningsmeier will begin her freshman year at Westside High School in August. It is there that she will audition for the school musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Talk about typecasting!


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