Olivia, a sixth-grader in Somerville, New Jersey, says she and her classmates were flummoxed by a word on their spelling-bee study list: xylyl. It’s a term from chemistry, referring to a group of atoms derived from a liquid called xylene. One source of xylene is wood tar, which inspired this chemical’s name, because in ancient Greek, xylon means “wood.” The same root appears in the English word xylophone, literally, “voice of wood.”

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