Brexit is the 2019 Children’s Word Of The Year by OUP for BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s 500 Words competition

The research shows just how aware and engaged kids are with both history and the world around them today, and how amazing that they bring these subjects to life in such inventive and entertaining ways.Zoe Ball
Date: 11.06.2019     Last updated: 11.06.2019 at 00.01
Category: Radio 2
  • Analysis of short stories submitted to BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words competition by Oxford University Press reveals that the Brexit impasse and Theresa May’s travails are inspiring children’s creativity.
  • A significant increase in the use of vegan and vegetarianism, plus references to climate change and plastic, show that British children are increasingly aware of health and environmental issues, along with political activism.
  • Sloths are emerging as a favourite animal.
  • OUP results are released ahead of the 500 Words Live Final on Friday 14 June 2019 from Windsor Castle with special guest, Honorary Judge, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and celebrity readers Michael Sheen, Helen McCrory, David Walliams, Sandi Toksvig, Konnie Huq and Hugh Bonneville with performances from Busted, Tom Walker and The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical

Whichever way you receive news - by listening to the radio, watching TV, reading a newspaper or looking at social media - the issue of Brexit is all-pervading. However, it is not just politicians that are trying to solve one of the most important and complex dilemmas faced by a generation, UK children are also creating some interesting possible solutions.

The 2019 BBC Radio 2 500 Words story writing competition, hosted by Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 Breakfast Show in partnership with Oxford University Press, received a whopping 112,986 entries from children in 25,000 UK schools this year. Analysis of their entries has once again revealed some remarkable data and findings.

500 Words was originally created by Chris Evans on the Radio 2 Breakfast Show in 2011 and to date has received over 900 000 entries.

Why Brexit?
Previous words of the year have been plastic (2018), Trump (2017) and refugee (2016) reflecting the influence of global affairs on children’s creativity. Similarly, this year, the national focus on Brexit has been a major topic for young writers to address. Use of the word Brexit alone has increased by 192 percent since last year’s competition, and with that, mentions of Theresa May have also gone up by 470 percent. But while Brexit as Children’s Word Of The Year may seem predictable in a year of news dominated by the issue, the stories that use it as a hook for storytelling are anything but.

While a small number of this year’s stories reference Brexit as a boring subject adults ‘bang on about’ and ‘go on about’, many more feature pro-active, empowered children attempting to find a deal, suggesting Brexit be cancelled, or attempting to help the beleaguered Prime Minister out themselves.

As one nine year-old girl writes in How I Solved The Brexit Problem For The Prime Minister:

'Guess who walks in? You're right, it's Theresa May, our Prime Minister. I get down to business straight away and tell her my version of the Brexit Deal. She asks for my name and I reply, "Beatrice but you can call me, Bea". The next morning I am watching the BBC news and see the Prime Minister going into a press conference with my plan in her hand. She announces that: "As Plan A won't work, I've come up with Plan B, which will be perfect." I chuckle to myself because I know that she meant my 'Plan Bea'. So, that's how I solved the Brexit problem for the Prime Minister.’

References to the backstop and no deal also pepper stories. As The Impossible Task puts it: "What I might do is help Mrs. May sort out Brexit. No need to recall Parliament, I'll sort out a deal. I'll discover what the Irish Backstop actually is - job done! Everyone's happy."

The sense of frustration amongst those tasked with steering a path through Britain leaving the EU is also wonderfully captured in two tales: one in which Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, is so fed-up that he dreams of becoming a Bake Off contestant:

”You can have your Brexit deal," said Tusk, nibbling at his cake. "But please, can I be in the Great British Bake Off? Baking has really been my only passion! I don't know why I became the European Union leader!" (The Brexit Battle, girl, age 11). And in another story Theresa May resorts to turning herself into a tree to avoid discussing Brexit again.

Brexit itself is a portmanteau word created from British and Exit, which children have used as inspiration to invent their own forms, such as prexit (Primary School), wexit (wood), dexit (den), plexit (plastic) and clexit (class leaving the school). This even extended to gripes in the garden: 

‘The Apples said, 'We all think it would just be easier to leave without a deal of warmth throughout the Winter since it is late Autumn and is almost time to leave!' The blueberries didn't agree and said 'That would be a no deal FREXIT!’ (The Summer The Fruits Argued, boy, aged 12).

The Brexit debate informed a series of imaginative titles, replete with weird and wonderful plotlines: Dan And The Big White Fluffy Brexit Bug, Darrel The Brexit Pony, The Cat Who Solved Brexit, Aliens In Brexit, A Unicorn Called Brexit, Jade The Brexit Fairy, Brexit Breakfast, Brexit Gets Lost, Dear Brexit, The Three Little Politicians and the Big Bad Brexit Monster, Henry VIII negotiates BREXIT! and Unicorns Plus Brexit Equals CHAOS!!!

“Brexit is, unsurprisingly, a huge theme in the stories this year,” says Helen Freeman, Director of Publishing Operations and Home Sector at Oxford University Press. “What is an extremely complex and difficult issue for some of the finest political minds has inspired children’s creativity and inventiveness in a really interesting and smart way.

"In 2017 and 2018 Brexit was mostly referred to as a boring subject parents talked about as something in the background. This year, however, it is a very different picture: Brexit is front and centre of the action, with children swooping in to help Theresa May in a proactive, empowered and fun way. This year’s stories show an overwhelming desire among children to take action and create positive change themselves, at home, at school and in society more generally. Agency and empowerment are massive themes."

Zoe Ball, Radio 2 Breakfast show presenter, says: “I love how the analysis of Radio 2’s 500 Words entries is able to uncover so much fascinating information about the stories. The research shows just how aware and engaged kids are with both history and the world around them today, and how amazing that they bring these subjects to life in such inventive and entertaining ways."

Lewis Carnie, Head of BBC Radio 2, says: "OUP’s findings are such a unique insight into the creative minds of children today, showing the many points of reference and the different themes which inspire them each year. I’d like to thank OUP for their brilliant work analysing the language in almost 113,000 stories submitted to 500 Words this year.”

The wider political world and reacting to issues such as climate change, pollution, health and social justice also play significant roles in many stories. Use of the words veggie (160 mentions), vegan (128) and vegetarian (157) reflect the national trend towards adopting a more plant-based diet.

"Although ‘vegan’ has come up in previous years, this is the first year that veganism as a concept in itself has emerged," says Helen Freeman. "There are hilarious examples of a vegan Big Bad Wolf, another about a vegan crocodile, plus lots of other clever subversions of traditional characters and story tropes."

In The Big (Not) Bad Wolf, written by a nine year-old boy, the Wolf is recast as a character who no longer wants to be the villain of the piece:

"It's really hard always being the baddie in a story when you're actually quite nice. But the truth is, I actually like being helpful and I don't like eating grannies or blowing down houses. You might be surprised to hear that I don't even like eating meat - I'm a vegan wolf!"

Another tale tells of a much-reformed lupine character:

‘Six months into the future, what is the wolf doing? His pig-eating days are over, being a vegan is taking over. He now travels around the world with the three pigs, selling vegan treats.’ (Hungry Like The Wolf, girl, aged 11). A fish finger has a very lucky escape in another story: ‘"You don't want to eat me?" "Of course not! I'm vegan" she announced. Fishie had no idea what vegan is. To be fair he thought it is some sort of an alien.’ (The Adventure Of The Fishfinger, girl, aged 10).

Once again, the most popular food mentioned in the 500 Words stories this year is chocolate with 10,830 mentions. This is followed by cake, banana, cheese and cream.

Environmental activism
Last year’s Word Of The Year - plastic - again sees a significant increase in usage, while the global environmental protests, including that by Greta Thunberg which took place in February (right in the middle of the 500 Words writing period) provided a rich source of material. The Swedish teenager also emerges as a role model, stimulating themes based on campaigning and activism:

‘Children all over the world had walked out of their school lessons to protest against the way people were treating our planet. With wide open eyes, Poppy watched as the children who were not that much older than her marched to preserve the future of the Earth.’ (The World Outside My Window, girl, aged 10).

Smart devices
Tech, voice and smart devices appear in a lot of stories, demonstrating their increasing presence in children’s lives - Alexa and Siri are frequent ‘characters’. In a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs use a smart speaker to save themselves. When the Wolf gives them three chances to answer questions, one of the porcine pals cunningly says his name is Alexa. So, as soon as the Wolf asks ‘Alexa’ a question, the smart device provides the right answer and defeats the Wolf.

TikTok, an app for creating and sharing short music videos, also appears in a number of stories. In contrast, more established social media platforms, such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook appear less in 2019 than in previous years. However, vloggers and vlogging have increased, as have references to Netflix.

The appeal of writing about gaming has also experienced a decline, although the multi-award winning Fortnite saw a 79 percent rise in mentions, and the similarly-formatted game Apex Legends made an impact. Curiously, watching games being played, rather than actively participating in them as a player, is a notable new trend in this year’s 500 Words entries.

Famous people and made-up creatures
Of the top 25 ‘famous people’ mentioned in the stories, including fictional and mythological characters, Santa tops the list with over 2,000 mentions, but this year Gummy Bear has gone straight in at number two, with Zeus in third spot.

The footballer Cristiano Ronaldo remains the most popular ‘real person’, with Donald Trump still providing a rich source of material in fifth place overall, behind the Juventus forward. Meanwhile, England’s captain and Tottenham Hotspur talisman Harry Kane makes it into OUP’s chart for the first time, in 14th position.

The top 25 ‘famous people’ (including fictional and mythological characters) are 1) Santa, 2) Gummy Bear, 3) Zeus, 4) Cristiano Ronaldo, 5) Donald Trump, 6) Harry Potter, 7) Tooth Fairy, 8) Adolf Hitler, 9) Pegasus, 10) Dracula, 11) Cinderella, 12) Merlin, 13) Harry Kane, 14) Poseidon, 15) Snow White, 16) Batman, 17) Minotaur, 18) Apollo, 19) Gingerbread Man, 20) The Ninja, 21) Godzilla, 22) David Walliams, 23) Hiccup, 24) Hercules and 25) Easter Bunny.

The top 10 ‘real people’ are 1) Cristiano Ronaldo, 2) Donald Trump, 3) Adolf Hitler, 4) Harry Kane, 5) David Walliams, 6) Theresa May, 7) Queen Elizabeth, 8) Queen Victoria, 9) Henry VIII and and 10) Usain Bolt.

Sloths and superheroes
While fictional unicorns were all the rage in the 2018 edition of 500 Words - with approximately 20,000 mentions - sloths are clearly the next big thing in children’s imaginations. The cute, slow-moving and rather shaggy creatures appear 1,100 times, representing a year on year increase of 61 percent. However, they have a long way to go before knocking the mythical, horned horses from the top spot - unicorns still feature some 15,000 times in the 2019 500 Words stories.

Heroes and villains are popular choices for characters and themes in the stories. The words superhero and villain have both increased by 53 percent and 54 percent respectively.

Notes to Editors
500 Words is the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show's short story writing competition for children aged 5-13. It was created and 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 and several wild card choices for the judging panel.

The 500 Words judges are award-winning and best-selling authors Francesca Simon, Charlie Higson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and former Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman. They are joined by Honorary Judge, Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall, with Chris Evans as Chair of the Judging Panel. 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 Windsor Castle on Friday 14 June 2019. Further information can be found here

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 (386 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.