Plastic revealed as Children’s Word Of The Year by OUP for Chris Evans Breakfast Show’s 500 Words

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 themChris Evans
Date: 06.06.2018     Last updated: 06.06.2018 at 08.26
Category: Radio 2
  • Analysis by Oxford University Press of short stories submitted to BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words competition reveals more remarkable insights into UK children’s use of language.
  • 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.
  • OUP results are released ahead of the 500 Words Live Final on Friday 8 June 2018 from Hampton Court Palace Festival with special guest, Honorary Judge, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and celebrity readers Jason Isaacs, Jim Broadbent, Shobna Gulati, Dara O’Briain, and David Walliams and performances from John Newman, Alexandra Burke and Bastille.

Plastic, the ocean, Emmeline Pankhurst, Donald Trump, Brexit, Korea, Grenfell Tower, unicorns, slime and the computer game Fortnite are just some of the people and subjects that influence British children’s creativity and use of language, says a report published today by Oxford University Press (OUP).

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. For example, one entrant 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, boy aged 10)

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 percent 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 BBC One in December 2017) had on the nation’s children.

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, with titles such as The Plastic Shore, The Mermaid’s Plastic Mission and The Evil Mr Plastic. For example:

“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...” (Save The Planet, boy aged 7).

Children are also taking matters into their own hands to come up with inventive solutions to the plastic problem with, for instance: a ‘Reverse-o-matic Pollutinator Ray Gun’ for “zonking all the polluting machines around the world” (The Bookworm, boy aged 13); the ‘Fantastic-sewage-sooperpooper-suckerupper’ to “stop sewage going into the sea so people could swim in it without it being horrible” (Professor Igotit and the Fantastic-sewage-sooperpooper-suckerupper, boy aged five); and ‘The three plastic-eteers’, “a team fighting against plastic rubbish” (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 each have also increased by more than 100 percent, 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).

Vineeta Gupta, Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says: “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.”

Chris Evans says: “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.”

Lewis Carnie, Head of BBC Radio 2, says: "Every year I am enlightened and amazed by the findings of the OUP's research into the language, humour and imaginations of the children who enter Radio 2 Breakfast Show's 500 Words competition. And for 2018 we received yet another record number of entries -134, 790. I'm thrilled 500 Words has inspired so many children to write their wonderful stories."

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 percent 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 percent) and Amelia Earhart (350 percent). Children are using language in creative ways to engage with the issues. For example there is a story about Larry, the Suffra-cat, “who started by chaining himself to a statue outside Parliament and yowling so loudly that the MPs couldn't get on with their work” and the PM had to decide that cats should have the vote (Larry the Suffra-cat, girl aged nine). 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: “I am on the spaceship 3000 to become the first woman on the moon” (The Way To The Red Planet, girl aged 11).

Alongside social and political issues, playground trends proved to be fertile ground for young imaginations. In 2018 it’s all about slime. There is a 96 percent year-on-year increase in references to the craze for making and playing with this squidgy, gooey material made from various ingredients, including PVA glue, bicarbonate of soda, food colouring, shaving cream, and contact lens solution. As a slither-off of the slime effect, kids also use bucket, pot, blob, trail of slime, slime monster (in video games) in their stories. “Just like all 10 and  eight year-olds, me and Evie love making slime. Squishy slime, bubbly slime, edible slime, even bogey looking slime, we love it all.” (TOP SECRET: DON'T TELL MUM AND DAD, girl aged 10).

Among mythical beasts, unicorns are still the favourite subject by a fantasy furlong. The horned horse appears over 20,010 times in this year’s competition, with 85% of the mentions coming from girls, mostly aged 5-7. Children also use language creatively to invent their own unicorn words (“Worrycorn: a unicorn with a great gold mane, and a sparkling pink unicorn horn bright enough to melt an ice cream in a freezer that can ‘record all your worries and make them disappear’” (There’s A Worrycorn In My Pocket, girl aged nine). Similarly, mermaid tales holds sway with girls in the competition’s younger age group.

Gaming words appear every year in 500 Words, but 2018 saw the use of the word game increase by 66 percent, from 17,000 to 30,000 mentions. Gaming related vocabulary increased by 15 percent: console, portal, platform, snipe, noob (a newbie or an inexperienced player). The most mentioned game is Minecraft, with Pokémon next in popularity. The new arrival in 2018 is Fortnite (63 percent of the mentions coming from boys and mostly from children aged nine to 10), and children also used associated vocabulary including XBalanque, Tilted Towers, llama, and even the game’s currency V-bucks.

Children have also used gameplay to inspire adventurous narratives and build imaginative worlds: “It was battle time, with her diamond blade she attacked furiously hoping to win the battle against an evil troll, that protected the golden portal key. Allie opened the portal with the golden key, stepping forward onto a platform.” (The Wonders Of Allie, girl aged eight).

This year’s entries also sees the gamification of social media, with an increase in the mentions of ‘streaks’ where Snapchat becomes a game of popularity: "’Oh no! No Snapchat, Instagram or Twitter for ages! I'm going to lose my streaks on Snapchat! I can't even talk to Mam or Dad!’ moaned Jess.” (The Nightmare of Siblings, girl aged 12). Social media has always featured heavily in the 500 Words stories, and 2018 is no exception. The word story has also increased in usage – and is now used in the context of a Snapchat or Instagram ‘story’. Girls aged 10-13 mention social media in their stories more than any other group. Tellingly, children also understand that adults can become addicted to social media – “The teacher took no notice because she is on Facebook, I'm like why doesn't she get off Facebook and put her face in a book!” (The Un Normal Day, boy aged 10).

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. Santa and Cinderella remain the most used fictional characters as in all other years of the competition. 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.

Along with Trump, children have once again shown how aware they are of the political and social landscape around them. Mentions of Korea, which were up 126 percent year on year, with most references made to North Korea. The country’s Supreme Leader is almost exclusively mentioned by boys. For example: “Kim Jong Un was a cyborg and was mind controlled by Cortana (windows AI assistant)! I ran for it…” (Space Station, boy aged 12). References to South Korea are in relation to the Winter Olympics.

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. For example: “Ice cold snowflakes swirled like feathers around me, I pulled my ragged, ripped jacket tightly around my shoulders … I'm homeless, lonely and scared.” (Hunger Hope, girl aged 10).

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is also hauntingly portrayed in a number of stories: “He saw fireflies drifting in the night sky… he had not seen these in England before… What the young boy did not realise was the fireflies were in fact burning embers from the floors below… His tower block was named Grenfell Tower.” (FIREFLIES, boy aged 10). Such 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 percent. 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).

Children also use it creatively in the form of similes - "an exit as big as Brexit" (Down The Haunted Lane, girl aged 7). There are also interesting allegorical and figurative uses, such as: “Once upon a time in a faraway land there was a princess who lived in a castle which was guarded by a monster. The monster was called Brexit and everyone blamed him for everything. He kept asking ‘why is everyone blaming me?’” (Misunderstanding, girl aged nine).

Football is one of the most popular topics (particularly with 7-8 year-olds) with 70 percent of the stories coming from boys, but girls dream about starring in football too: “Megan is a Liverpool Football Superstar…” (Megan's Unbelievable Journey, girl aged 10). Ronaldo and Messi have been in the 500 Words writers’ top names for footballers every year. Neymar has appeared in the top 10 for two years running while Salah is a new entry in the stories in 2018 - the top mentioned British players are Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney. Liverpool, Man United and Man City are the most cited football clubs.

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.

Notes to Editors
500 Words is the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show's short story writing competition for children aged 5-13, 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 over 5,000 volunteer teachers and librarians from around the UK, before the Reading Agency drew up a shortlist of 50 stories for the judging panel.

The 500 Words panel of award-winning and best-selling authors-including Francesca Simon, Charlie Higson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and former Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman-were, since 2016, joined by Honorary Judge, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, and headed up by Chris Evans. They picked their favourite six stories, drawn from two age groups: children aged 5-9, and those aged between 10 and 13 years. The Bronze, Silver, and Gold medal winners from each age category will be revealed in a very special Breakfast Show, live from Hampton Court Palace Festival on Friday 16 June (7-9.30am). Further information can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/500words.

Oxford University Press (OUP) analysed the entries using its 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 (60 million words) and also language written by children (340 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.

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