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by | Jun 10, 2020

2020 Oxford Children’s Word of the Year: Coronavirus

Coronavirus is the 2020 Oxford Children’s Word of the Year.

2020 marks the 10th anniversary of BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words story writing competition, and saw more than 134,000 children submit entries. That means that there have been over a million stories submitted to the 500 Words competition since it began!

Every year, the Oxford Children’s Dictionaries & Language Data team at Oxford University Press analyse the short stories entered into the competition to find fascinating insights into children’s evolving use of language. Once again, children have shown themselves to be witty, inventive, and astute.

Why coronavirus?

Previous Children’s Word of the Year include Brexit (2019), plastic (2018), Trump (2017), and refugee (2016), indicating the influence of global affairs on children’s creativity. Standing out this year was the first appearance of the word coronavirus and related names or words, such as Covid-19 and Wuhan.

In many stories, the word is specifically associated with China, and lots of realistic physiological and medical details associated with the coronavirus are included. However, the young writers also show a delightful blend of humour and creativity as they write about searching for cures and dive into fantasy and science fiction:

‘That night I had an interesting dream, a magical sparkling unicorn came and whispered to me the secret ingredients of the cure for the coronavirus.’

The Magical Cure, girl aged 8

One child (aged 12) even wrote about Salmonella, Flu, and Legionnaire’s Disease joining forces against coronavirus, whilst others enlisted the help of Smurfs, unicorns, drones, and magic potions!

The competition closed on 27th February – before the UK recorded its first coronavirus case and weeks before the lockdown – meaning that many of the children’s science fiction stories reflect real life in the UK today.

‘Back to 2020 is where we are heading where everything is wrong! The corona virus is taking over the integrity of China and trust me on this China is huge. Without warning it came to America, France and Portugal. Terrified people are covering their mouths with masks to prevent spreading it. It is also infecting the young of our world kids the next generation of people. It is sad because they are not getting to live their life to the fullest.’

WORLD WAR 2, boy aged 10

BBC 500 Words infographics

Want more insights into how children have been using language in the past year? Take a look at these BBC 500 Words infographics, chock full of fascinating facts and figures about children’s word choices:

For more on the findings and a unique insight into children’s language in 2020, download the full report on the Oxford University Press website.


Climate change, current affairs, and activism

The terrible bush fires in Australia and ongoing fears of the effects of climate change also feature strongly this year. These stories show how children today are very much in touch with the most pressing issues of our time and respond to them with sensitivity, compassion, and a desire to find positive, practical solutions.

Since plastic was the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year in 2018, use of the word has increased by 32% year-on-year, and phrases such as global warming, save the planet, and climate change have jumped in use:

‘She drew posters and handed out flyers to people to let them know what all the plastic that we are discarding was causing to ocean life and asked if they could just make one small change to help us save our sea creatures.’

Peter and the plastic, girl aged 8

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has seen her appearance in stories increase 1755% on last year, stimulating themes based on campaigning and activism. In one wonderful, feminist mash-up – notably written by an 11-year-old boy – Thunberg is working with three other iconic women to bring about political and societal change:

‘The P.O.W (Protectors Of Women) Brigade were having a meeting in their secret cellar beneath the magnificent Buckingham Palace. The head of the team Emmeline Pankhurst was leading the meeting “Now down to business. Rosa Parks, Greta Thunberg and Marie Curie – I would like you three to take this one: a man in America doesn’t believe that world problems and gender inequality is happening.’

The P.O.W Brigade, boy aged 11

Children also wrote stories about the Australian bush fires and their impact on wild animals, especially kangaroos and koalas:

‘What caught their eyes was the poor kangaroo in front of them crying, looking at the fire rapidly moving towards her joey.’

Set alight, girl aged 12

Helen Freeman, Director of Oxford Children’s Dictionaries and Language Data at Oxford University Press, says: “Once again, the analysis of the children’s writing has revealed how tuned in young people are to global events and how real-world events can inspire such a variety of stories and writing styles, from apocalyptic science fiction, to fairy tales, to humour. It’s striking that so many children are choosing to explore these themes and ideas in their writing, and it’s a complete delight for us to read their stories in this special 10th anniversary year.”

Other highlights

  • Children are writing about social media and technology more than ever, and were inspired to create new words, including Instabone, Instafly, Instapoo, cyberocracy, cybersaurus, and cybersnake.
  • YouTube continues to be the most-mentioned social media platform, but mentions of Instagram are not far behind, increasing 99% in 2020.
  • VSCO girl, a new phrase for 2020, was mentioned 52 times.
  • Minecraft is the most-mentioned game with 947 hits.
  • Donald Trump topped the list of famous people with 1,049 mentions.

Writing tips

500 Words might be over for another year, but that doesn’t mean that it’s time to put down your pens! 

Creative writing books

How to Write Your Best Story Ever!

Christopher Edge | Age 9+

Ideal for children wanting to enter story writing competitions! This is a humorous and authoritative book that will awaken the author in every child, unlocking their story ideas and giving them hints and tips to create their own stories.

Buy on Amazon >

How To Be A Young #Writer

Christopher Edge | Age 11+

This book will help children learn to craft brilliant stories, create believable characters, write powerful endings, and much more.

Packed with practical tips and insider advice from published authors, this guide opens up the secrets of how to write well and guides young writers all the way through from beating the fear of the blank page and learning to edit their work, to how to get other people reading their stories.

Buy on Amazon >

Write Your Best Story Ever! Notebook

Christopher Edge | Age 7+

A must-have notebook to unlock the imagination and inspire children to start writing, full of great hints and tips, and activity pages for jotting down words, sketching characters, and writing in stories.

Buy on Amazon >

Oxford Roald Dahl Thesaurus

Susan Rennie, Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl | Age 8+

This is a real thesaurus for all chiddlers and even some adult human beans. It features hundreds of spliffling words used and created by the world’s best storyteller, Roald Dahl, together with useful synonyms, related words and phrases, idioms and word origins.

Buy on Amazon >