WASHINGTON (AP) _ Harry Altman's first word in this year's national spelling bee made him and the other young contestants chuckle. The definition: a pain in the head.

``C-e-p-h-a-l-a-l-g-i-a,'' Harry said, slowly emphasizing each letter.

The elimination bell didn't ding. He had spelled it correctly. The boy smiled timidly and ambled back to his chair on the stage of a hotel ballroom here. The 12-year-old sixth grader from Glen Rock, N.J., still had a chance to be this year's champ.

The 72nd Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee began today with ``irascible,'' a word that means marked by a hot temper or resentful anger. Mark Albers, 12, of Reno, Nev., misspelled it with a double ``r.''

The bell signaling a misspelled word rang. He was out.

The bee began with 249 spellers. Thirty-three spellers were eliminated in the first round, including Shante Lewis, 9, a fourth-grader from Plainfield, N.J., who was the youngest contestant this year. Another 10 spellers misspelled words in the second round and were out of the competition.

Joanna Mann, 13, of San Angelo, Texas, missed her first word _ ``phugoid.'' She didn't know what it meant, either. The dictionary says the word represents variations in the longitudinal motion or course of the center of mass of an airplane in flight. Joanna misspelled it ``fugoid.''

``I got nervous and said 'f' by accident,'' Joanna said during a break. ``I was really nervous on stage. Now I'm calmed down.''

The spelling bee got off to a swift start. A new policy this year encourages the 249 young spellers to spell a little faster than in past competitions. Judges this year have been given more guidance in disqualifying contestants who spell as slow as m-o-l-a-s-s-e-s.

``It's very easy to lose track of time,'' said director Paige Kimble. ``We examined time and round statistics for the last six years and found that spellers on average were spending longer at the microphone. And we could not reasonably continue that trend without extending the length of the bee itself.''

It's not an ironclad time limit, but if a speller pauses long enough, judges can request an immediate response, and then disqualify a speller who fails to give it. Under the guidelines, adequate times to spell words are 90 seconds for easier words from the first day and two minutes for the harder words in the final rounds.

While few children take longer than a minute to spell a word, some contestants take four or five. One year, a speller left the judges and audience hanging for nine minutes.

``I can sort of understand why you can't just have somebody just standing up there on stage,'' said Kyra Davies, 13, an eighth-grade speller from Lexington, Ky.

Today's contestants all have won regional bees to qualify. Those who pass the first few rounds today will compete for the championship Thursday. The winner will receive $10,000, a choice of encyclopedias and other prizes. Each contestant will receive a commemorative watch from Scripps Howard and a cash prize determined by rank.

Spellers from Jamaica, home of the reigning champ, were banned this year because all qualifying contests must have been held no earlier than this Feb. 1. Last year, Jamaica continued its four-decade-old tradition of qualifying its spellers in August. The new rule grew out of concern that some spellers were getting as much as a six-month head start on other children, Ms. Kimble said.