Plastic, the ocean, Emmeline Pankhurst, Donald Trump, Brexit and Grenfell Tower are just some of the people and subjects that influence British children’s creativity and use of language, says a report published this month by Oxford University Press (OUP).
A significant increase in the use of the word plastic shows the influence of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which highlighted the damaging effect plastic pollution is having on marine life.
Following OUP’s analysis of the 134,790 short stories submitted to the 2018 BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show’s 500 Words competition, British children have once again shown themselves to be fabulously inventive, funny and socially astute.
Plastic is the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year because of its significant increase in use in 500 Words (a total rise of more than 100% on the 2017 competition), the awareness and passion children demonstrated for environmental issues and the creative solutions to combat them that children invented in their stories.
This demonstrated the huge impact the final episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II (screened on BBC1 in December 2017) had on the nation’s children.
‘Plastic is a fantastic Word of the Year! It really shows just how incredibly engaged with and how much the young people in Britain today care about the world around them. The OUP’s 500 Words analysis is always fascinating and so insightful about the creative ways children use language.’
BBC Radio 2 presenter
Children use plastic in their stories in an emotive way to convey their understanding of the damage pollution is causing to marine life, drawing on their creativity and imagination to deliver powerful descriptive imagery in stories.
A seven-year-old-boy wrote, ‘Sea animals are dying because of you and your plastic! Nets get caught around dolphins’ necks. Plastic used for bottles gets tangled around sea turtle shells…’ in his story Save The Planet.
A 10-year-old boy wrote, ‘An empty plastic bottle they had carelessly discarded bobbed up and down at the water’s edge. The pull of the tide gradually lured it further and further out to sea with each rise and swell of the waves. Yet another unwelcome plastic alien invader in the beautiful big blue sea that one less whale now calls home.’ (The Big Blue).
Titles of the children’s stories submitted include The Plastic Shore, The Mermaid’s Plastic Mission and The Evil Mr Plastic.
Children are also taking matters into their own hands to come up with inventive solutions to the plastic problem. A ‘Reverse-o-matic Pollutinator Ray Gun’ for ‘zonking all the polluting machines around the world’ featured in The Bookworm (boy, aged 13); a ‘Fantastic-sewage-sooperpooper-suckerupper’ to ‘stop sewage going into the sea so people could swim in it without it being horrible’ appeared in Professor Igotit and the Fantastic-sewage-sooperpooper-suckerupper (boy, aged five) and ‘The three plastic-eteers’, ‘a team fighting against plastic rubbish’ appeared in The Three Plastic-eteers (girl, aged eight).
Some stories are even told from the point of view of the plastic containers: ‘Reaching the surface I found it filled with my kind. Empty bottles bobbed on the surface like rubber ducks, bags of different sizes and colours floating like jelly fish, killing and collecting helpless sea life. A blanket of plastic suffocating the ocean. None of us belong here.’ (Misplaced, girl aged eight).
Correspondingly, use of the terms recycle and recycling have each also increased by more than 100%, as have packaging, pollution, plastic bottle, plastic bag and plastic waste.
Biodegradable and permeable entered the stories for the first time and the word ocean, and many of its real or imagined inhabitants (whale, dolphin, turtle, shark, penguin, octopus, and of course, mermaid) also saw marked rises.
The phrase litter picking appears for the very first time, with phrases such as, ‘After watching recent events on the news about plastic ruining the oceans, she had organised a beach litter picking event with her friends.’ (Mermaid SOS! girl, aged 11).
‘Language empowers children, giving them a voice to express their passions and opinions, which they have put to powerful effect in this year’s Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s 500 Words competition. Children have shown they are acutely aware of the impact plastic has on our environment and how it will affect their own future. They have used their stories to devise imaginative ways to combat this issue and bring about change in their world.’
Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press
The 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act certainly had an effect on a substantial number of entries, with frequent use of Suffragette, Votes for Women, WSPU, force-feed and hunger strike.
The inclusion of women in history in storylines increased by 33% year on year, in writing by both boys and girls, with a list of figures’ names that shows an engagement with areas ranging from aviation and computers to political activism.
New appearances in 2018 are Emily Davison and Ada Lovelace, along with substantial increases for Emmeline Pankhurst (833%) and Amelia Earhart (350%).
However, Cleopatra remains the most mentioned woman in history. Phrases such as ‘the one and only’ or ‘the first woman’ show that the women mentioned are looked upon with aspiration, as role models.
Last year, thousands of children used language in clever, witty, and subversive ways related to the US President, making Trump the 2017 Children’s Word of the Year.
Fascination with ‘The Donald’ shows no sign of abating, and he takes the top spot for famous people mentioned for the second year in succession.
Once again, vocabulary associated with Donald Trump (president, White House, fake news and wig) featured strongly. ‘My name is Walter Wig and I sit on Donald Trump’s head. (Donald Trumps Wig, girl aged nine). There were also many inventive creations inspired by ‘trump’, such as Snozzletrump, Pinetrump and Snuffletrump.
Emotive writing on Syria, the plight of refugees, terrorist attacks such as the Manchester Arena bombing and school shootings also provide powerful material for stories. Mentions of homelessness are on the rise with children presenting an empathetic imagining of the experience of living on the streets.
The stories illustrate that youngsters will not shy away from traumatic events; rather they will try to understand them and confront them in a thoughtful and sensitive manner.
Of the political words/names which have grown most in frequency of use since 2017, Brexit tops the list with an increase of 182%. It is mainly mentioned as an item on the news, or as a boring topic of conversation. For example, ‘I am told that I shall be attending another meeting for Brexit negotiations in Brussels today. Was slightly excited for a moment about travelling abroad again, before quickly remembering how mind-numbingly boring the last Brexit meeting was. I might have to bring a book, or maybe a pillow.’ (The Daily Life of Theresa May, boy aged 10).
The top 10 names of famous people used in stories include as usual some sports and historical names. Donald Trump is number one, followed by Ronaldo, Messi, Hitler, David Walliams (his first ever Top 10 appearance), Neymar, Usain Bolt, Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, and Queen Victoria. Favourite singers (in order of popularity in stories) are Little Mix, Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Olly Murs, and Taylor Swift, with the latter’s tune ‘Shake it off’ the most mentioned song.
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