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Thesaurus Rex

Will a monstrous vocab finally score him a win?

By Matthew Halverson
Photograph by Whitney Curtis

A word to the wise: If you lost your shirt betting on the Super Bowl and want to get it back, put your money on Rajiv Tarigopula to win this month’s National Vocabulary Championship. Not only does he have a mind made for memorization, but he’s also got the perfect motivation—and he spells it R-E-D-E-M-P-T-I-O-N.

If you’re a word nerd—or you just watch so much ESPN that you even occasionally get suckered into its non-sports programming—you might remember that the 15-year-old Parkway West sophomore made four consecutive trips to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, between 2003 and 2006. But if you really know your stuff, you’ll remember that despite that impressive run, which included two fourth-place finishes, he never took home the big prize.

And that—along with the fact that he’s had a year to stew about what coulda shoulda been—is why we like his chances on March 10, when he’ll square off against 49 other high schoolers in Los Angeles for the NVC’s war of words. It’s a different game entirely: Contestants are expected to know things like whether the correct synonym for “radiant” is “refulgent” or “fuliginous,” which means that studying requires more book reading than flash card–memorizing—and that’s why Tarigopula likes it. “At the spelling bee, they try to ask you words that no one’s heard before,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Is that even English?’”

Still not convinced? Consider this: The kid’s got ice in his veins. “I think I work well under pressure,” he says. “I guess I like being in the spotlight.”

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