But successful protests, particularly at the national level, are quite rare, often with years passing between them. Perhaps the most recent protest took place in 2010, when four-timer Neetu Chandak received the word "paravane," which is a torpedo-shaped device meant to protect against underwater mines. Neetu did ask all the right questions, including an appropriate root question that showed she was "on the right track." But then she spelled "perivane," and was eliminated in the fifth round. On further examination, it was revealed that the root question she asked was answered in a way that may have swayed her away from the correct spelling. Such information was deemed unfair, and so she earned her place back on stage.
So what is the issue? The two Latin roots peri- and para- actually do have similar meanings, and spellers with their sights set on Washington would do well to learn the differences between the two. Let's take them one at a time.
Peri- is a root that simply means "all around," "near," or "surrounding." You see this in words like "periscope," which is an instrument most often seen on submarines that allows you to see all around you. The word "perimeter" also comes from this root.
Para- is fairly similar. One meaning of para- is "next to," hence the confusion that arose when Neetu began asking her root word questions. And here is where things can get difficult. Another meaning of para- is "closely resembling." My guess is that this is the true meaning behind paravane, since a paravane is torpedo-shaped, perhaps similar in form to a vane (a movable device that shows the direction of the wind). But the definition of paravane is not specific enough to give a speller that information. I suspect that Neetu asked if the root's definition was "near" or "next to." So you can understand why the judges may not have been sure exactly how to respond to Neetu's question.
Here is the main lesson. First, knowing roots can usually -- no, almost always -- help out in deciphering words. Paravane was an exceptionally rare case in which root word knowledge may be helpful, but too little knowledge can lead to a downfall. Neetu was fortunate that the judges rightly ruled that they gave her information that misled her.
Secondly, the roots peri- and para- are similar enough that it is very worthwhile to learn the subtle but very important differences between them.
(As you may know, Neetu did not take the title in 2010; that honor went to Anamika Veeramani, representing The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Neetu's downfall was the word "apogalacteum.")