Plastic has been revealed as the Children’s Word of the Year by Oxford University Press for the BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words Competition. British children have once again shown themselves to be fabulously inventive, funny and socially astute.
This year, more than 134,000 children entered the competition and the team at Oxford Children’s Dictionaries have been poring through all the entries to identify trends and changes in the way children are using language.
Plastic is our Children’s Word of the Year because of its significant increase in use (a total rise of more than 100% from 2017), the children’s awareness of and passion for environmental issues, and the creative solutions the children invented in their stories to combat environmental problems.
Children use plastic in their stories in an emotive way with titles such as: The Plastic Shore, The Mermaid’s Plastic Mission and The Evil Mr Plastic.
“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…”
Some children even wrote their stories from the perspective of 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 jellyfish, killing and collecting helpless sea life. A blanket of plastic suffocating the ocean.”
Writing about the environment
The words ‘recycle’ and ‘recycling’ have also seen an increase in frequency of over 100%. In their stories, children are taking matters into their own hands to come up with ingenious 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 5); and ‘The three plastic-eteers’, “a team fighting against plastic rubbish” (The Three Plastic-eteers, girl aged 8).
“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.”
Women in history
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 to 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%). 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”
Language inspired by mythology
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.’”
In 2018 it’s all about slime: the word slime was used 3,242 times in stories and was mentioned more by girls than by boys.
There has been a 96% 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 used bucket, pot, blob, trail of slime and slime monster in their stories.
“Just like all 10 and 8-year-olds, me and Evie love making slime. Squishy slime, bubbly slime, edible slime, even bogey looking slime, we love it all.”
Fidget spinners increased from 1 mention in 2017 to 130 in 2018.
Politics, Brexit and ‘The Donald’
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 has been mainly mentioned as an item on the news, or as a boring topic of conversation.
“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.”
Children have also used 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 9).
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.”
There were also many inventive creations inspired by ‘trump’, such as Snozzletrump, Pinetrump and Snuffletrump.
Writing about human tragedy
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.
“Ice cold snowflakes swirled like feathers around me, I pulled my ragged, ripped jacket tightly around my shoulders … I’m homeless, lonely and scared.”
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.”
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.
The extraordinary range of subject matters in this year’s 500 Words Competition reflects a remarkable awareness of the wider world from these young writers. The choice of Plastic as the Children’s Word of the Year is a fitting acknowledgement of the creativity and skill they demonstrated by engaging so insightfully with the issues that matter to them.