Social media, the Ebola epidemic, and World War I are just some of the things that have influenced British children’s creativity and use of language over the last year, says a report published today by the Oxford University Press about BBC Radio 2’s 500 WORDS competition.
Following OUP’s analysis of the 120,421 entries to this year’s BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Breakfast Show’s 500 WORDS short story competition, a wealth of fascinating insights into the lives of British children and the imaginative ways in which they use English have emerged. The winners of this year’s competition will be announced live on-air on Friday 29 May in a very special broadcast of The Breakfast Show coming live from St James’s Palace in London where HRH The Duchess of Cornwall will present them with their prizes.
Hashtag – and the symbol used to represent it ‘#’ – is unmistakeably the ‘Children’s Word of the Year’, owing to its significant shift in usage by children writing in this year’s competition. The symbol is entering children’s vocabulary in a new way, as they have extended the use from a simple prefix or a search term on Twitter, to a device for adding a comment in their stories. One imaginative entrant wrote, ‘She then picked it up and ran out of the cave… the cave exploded and she didn’t look back at it exploding, she just kept on walking forward # super cool.’ Another wrote, ‘The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get eaten (# frightened!!!).’
Vineeta Gupta, Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says: “Language is constantly changing and adapting. Children are true innovators and are using the language of social media to produce some incredibly creative writing. What impresses me most is how children will blend, borrow, and invent words to powerful effect and so enrich their stories.”
Chris Evans says: “The OUP’s research for Radio 2’s 500 WORDS confirms just how incredibly creative children can be. They are so often at the forefront of both adopting and adapting to new language trends and using them in all manner of inventive of ways. It’s clear that story-telling remains a hugely important part of a child’s life, and that we as parents should do whatever we can to help them enjoy the worlds they create on paper. To use the favourite word of our young authors this year, their talent and imagination are #inspiring!”
The irrepressible rise of mobile technology and social media is the predominant theme for 2015. Of the top 20 words which have significantly increased in use during the past 12 months since 500 WORDS 2014, over half are inspired by youngsters’ understanding and use of social media – YouTube, Zoella, Snapchat, selfie, vlog, blog, Instagram, emoji, and WhatsApp.
Becoming famous online or an ‘internet sensation’ is a common theme in the 2015 stories. OUP’s lexicographers analysing the entries noted an increasing desire for ‘instafame’. Many stories are concerned with posting videos online rather than watching them, and the number of views/hits/likes/comments/shares achieved is positioned as a measure of a person’s success. Children are aware, though, of the limitations of the internet and its darker flip-side, with the topic of cyberbullying also being addressed by 500 WORDS entrants in their stories.
Conversely, the sheer pace of technological change means that some technology-related words are now on the ‘endangered’ list – mobile, ipod, Nintendo, mp3, Wii and even TV/television/telly are becoming less popular. In their place are a mixture of words and brands such as PS4, iPhone, MacBook, and tablet. Facebook and e-mail are on the decline – it’s all about YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat these days. The research also reveals the fascinating way in which words are changing their meanings – hits, shares, notifications, comments, likes, and views are all increasingly used in their social media contexts by the 500 WORDS entrants.
International Current Affairs
Cyberspace aside, the young authors demonstrate a keen interest in the world around them. International current affairs, particularly the more harrowing situations, are reflected in their stories. Ukraine, Syria, Malaysia Airlines, and peacekeepers all feature. However, one global event dominates over all others – the Ebola crisis in countries such as Sierra Leone and Guinea. Encouragingly, the disease most frequently features in the context of a heroic search for a cure. Not surprisingly, vocabulary related to this topic has also increased in frequency this year, bringing disease, cure, quarantine, vaccine, and bacterium to the fore.
World War I
Events to mark the centenary of World War I have clearly had a big impact on children. Many historical and contemporary stories hone in on specific events surrounding the Great War, such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, for this year, the sinking of the Lusitania (1915). Interestingly, both boys and girls write in equal measure about soldiers, while also including U-boats, the Eastern Front, Tommies, shrapnel, and mustard gas in their contributions. The Suffragette movement is also a popular theme, though only girls choose to write about it.
This year’s research into trends has also uncovered that many children do conform to common gender stereotypes. Girls write enthusiastically of cupcakes, unicorns, marshmallows, and flowers, and they love words associated with beauty and fashion, such as dip-dying and loom bands. For boys, it is all very much about burgers, space, cars, and farting!
As is common each year with Radio 2’s 500 WORDS competition, popular culture holds great sway over the themes and subjects written about. It will come as no surprise that the movie behemoth that is Frozen has inspired a plethora of references to Elsa, Olaf, Sven, and other words that can be linked clearly to the blockbuster hit. Angelina Jolie’s role in Maleficent has also proved inspirational, prompting references to fairy, Aurora, godmother, and Maleficent. How to Train Your Dragon 2, Paddington, and Shaun The Sheep are similarly represented. One Direction is still the most popular band, but mentions of the top singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran have increased dramatically.
New and Invented Words
Animatronics is a popular new word in 2015, not having featured at all last year. The most common source for this word is the game Five Nights At Freddy’s. Minecraft terms and phrases also remain popular, with even more ocelots, biomes, obsidians, and minecarts appearing.
A big favourite with the 500 WORDS judges and the OUP team is the invented word. Where a word simply does not exist to name or describe something, children will create one. Their creativity is charmingly evidenced in invented words such as Stegasuarez (a dinosaur and footballer Luis Suarez hybrid monster!), chocoumptious, wellysaurus, and gloomful. For the second year running, the much coveted longest word accolade goes to pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust).
For 2015, OUP has looked at top characters from real life and fiction – both historical and contemporary – to see who really resonates with our children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cinderella still holds one of the top spots (maybe she has one of this year’s 500 WORDS celebrity readers, Sir Kenneth Branagh, to thank for that?). Other top characters include Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Superman, Snow White, Adolf Hitler, Batman, Rapunzel, the Tooth Fairy, James Bond, the Hulk, Wayne Rooney, Chris Evans, Dracula, Barbie, One Direction, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Usain Bolt, and Merlin. What came as a surprise to the experts at OUP was the huge number of mentions of deities and characters from mythology, such as Zeus, the Minotaur and Hercules.
Notes to Editors
500 WORDS is the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s short story writing competition for children aged 13 and under, launched by Chris Evans back in 2011. Earlier this year, children were invited to compose an original work of fiction using no more than 500 words. The entries were marked by nearly 4,000 volunteer teachers and librarians from around the UK, before the Reading Agency drew up a shortlist of 50 stories. The 500 WORDS panel of award-winning and best-selling authors – including Francesca Simon, Charlie Higson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, and headed up by TV presenter Richard Hammond – then picked their favourite six stories, drawn from two age groups: children aged 5-9, and those aged between 10 and 13. The Bronze, Silver, and Gold medal winners from each age category will be revealed in Radio 2’s Chris Evans Breakfast Show, live from St James’s Palace in London, on Friday 29 May (7-9.30am). HRH The Duchess of Cornwall will present the Gold winners with their prizes. Further information can be found at bbc.co.uk/500words
Oxford University Press analysed the entries using their Oxford Children’s Corpus – a large electronic database of real and authentic children’s language – the only one of its kind in the world. It contains language written for children (34 million words) and also language written by children (173 million words). This provides evidence, for language theorists and practitioners, of how children’s language behaves, and identifies patterns in language, looking specifically at grammatical structures and child-related vocabulary. It is an ideal resource for statistical frequency analysis of words. The Oxford Children’s Corpus is used by lexicographers and linguists as part of OUP’s ongoing language research and dictionary compilation programme.