Politics, elections, Donald Trump, and Pokémon GO are just some of the events, 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 131,798 fabulously inventive, funny and politically astute short stories for the 2017 BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show’s 500 Words competition, a wealth of fascinating insights into the lives of British children and their imaginative use of English have emerged.
The Children’s Word of the Year is Trump, picked because of its significant increase in use (a total rise of 839 per cent on 2016) by entrants writing in this year’s competition and the sophisticated way in which children used it to convey humour and satire, and evoke powerful descriptive imagery. Every year children show a keen interest in contemporary affairs and world events from sinkholes and the London Olympics to the Ebola crisis, refugees and Tim Peake’s spacewalk. This year, Donald Trump took office as President of the United States in the same week that 500 Words launched.
Trump is mentioned in a wide variety of contexts, from the US elections and politics, to tales of space, aliens, and superheroes, giving expression to children’s creativity, playfulness, and humour. Children also use the noun to invent new character names including Boggle Trump and Snozzle Trump.
Children have been playing with blends, suffixes and prefixes to create new words improvised around Trump. In fact there are more than 100 instances of words such as Trumplestilskin, Trumpyness, Trumpido, Trumpeon and Trumpwinningtastic. Girl 10 in the Sticky Journey writes: “OH NO! I have spoken too soon… the train’s track has broken because a mean Trumpdiddlydumper blew a bit out of the track… Our Marshmallow Goblin-Trolls get to work immediately.” We even have stories featuring characters such as Donald Trout, Hillary Kitten, and Obama Llama.
Vocabulary associated with the US presidency was far more prevalent in 2017 than in 2016, including president, America, wall, Hillary Clinton, White House, Trump Towers, Obama, Mexico and Putin. Displaying an ear for Trump’s particular use of words and catch phrases, one entry stood out for its ability to brilliantly capture the rhythm of his speech. In Donald J Trump Goes to the Moon, a 12-year old girl wrote: “10… 9…8 ‘my hair is so amazing’…7. ‘And real’. 6… 5 ‘I am going to make the moon great again!’. 3… 2…1 blast off!!”
Political vocabulary is a notable area of growth in 2017, showing children’s engagement with the news and media. The words politics and political show an increase of 115 per cent and 78 per cent respectively since last year, and an analysis of a cluster of around 30 words relating to contemporary politics (for example president, vote, election, campaign) shows a 58 per cent increase in frequency since 2016. New words and phrases in this year’s stories include Brexit, Article 50, fake news, and alternative facts.
Some great examples include: “Personal interactions were banned along with newspapers and books. Nowadays you were only allowed to communicate through tweeting alternative facts.”(Stories, boy 12); “I didn’t spend hours in the back of Mum and Dad’s car listening to them drone on about Brexit, the ‘Loft Project’ or the traffic.” (My Weekend News, girl 7) and “‘I don’t even know what an election is’ said Nibbles sadly. ‘An election is where lots of people vote for someone to be Prime Minister’, explained Violet softly.” (The Mouse Who Became Prime Minister, girl 7)
Of course, with a word like trump, our youngsters were not shy to use it for comic effect, referencing its more informal sense of passing wind. In Puddles of DOOM, the 10-year old author wrote: “Suddenly I did the loudest trump EVER! The whole restaurant gasped, as if it was a crime. ‘You trumped in front of the Queen’, hissed the shark, staring at me accusingly.”
Vineeta Gupta, Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says: “This year, the stories demonstrate creativity, style and wit, all underpinned by a sophisticated use of grammar and language. From humorous punning to creating their own words, children have played and experimented with language with impressive results. The stories have not only provided us with infinite entertainment, but also contributed to language research for children’s dictionaries. As well as this, 500 Words has led to academic research at Oxford University which will support teachers and schools. #StoryChampions!”
Chris Evans said: “The OUP’s research is always such a fascinating insight into the minds of children today. This year’s analysis reveals just how tuned in they are to what’s going on in the world. It’s so inspiring to see how they use language so creatively, having fun with words, using humour and bringing them to life through their wonderfully unconstrained imaginations.”
Gaming words appear in the 500 Words stories every year – this year it is the craze for Pokémon GO, in which gamers pursued electronic characters in real-life locations via their smart phones and tablets, that had the largest impact on kids’ imaginations (with Pikachu coming ninth in the list of most-mentioned famous people or fictional characters). Interestingly, children are now showing an awareness of the dangers of gaming – two common themes explored are the ideas of becoming obsessed with the game and being sucked into the world of the game.
The term social media has increased in frequency from 2016 to 2017 along with mentions of certain social media sites and much of the associated vocabulary. Talk is now of vlogs rather than blogs and our 2015 Children’s Word of the Year, hashtag #, reappeared this year. Youtube continues to be the most mentioned social media site, with Instagram overtaking Facebook and Snapchat showing the highest increase in mentions of all the top social media sites. As ever, the top social media acronyms are OMG, BFF, and LOL, but new words such as bottle flip and fidget spinner, now banned from many school playgrounds, have entered the 500 Words stories.
500 Words 2017 really was super! The word superhero is used many times, by both boys and girls. Batman and Superman are top characters (and also in the top 10 of all people mentioned), but a wide range of creative and descriptive vocabulary is seen in stories as children invent characters using the prefix super. Most names focused on the character’s superpowers (Puddle Jumper Boy), or their appearance (Cloud Boy); but some (Bin Boy) were named after where they came from. “One day, at the house the sun was setting and everyone was going to bed. Then the bin rapidly evolved into a boy like bin CALLED BIN BOY! Suddenly, he found out that he could fly.” (Bin Boy, boy 8). But the team at OUP were most delighted to read about this unusual superhero: “‘I AM LANGUAGE BOY!’ Screamed a five-year-old boy. ‘Be quiet I’m trying to find out where Lady Literacy is …’” (Subjects At War, girl 9).
Heroic super characters were also frequently animals or food items; Super Kitty, Super Owl, Super Bee, Super Rat, Super Panda, Super Pig and Super Pug were just some of the menagerie of animals with special powers. Super Dog and Super Cat are the two most popular super animals, reflecting the trend in the list of regular animals in which dog and cat are the most popular. They also appear in the top 100 nouns in the entire 2017 corpus of stories. But which wins the battle of the pets? Hounds beat felines to the top spot. And who wouldn’t want to read about the exploits and derring-do of Super Sprout and Super Sausage?
The word super was also frequently employed informally to add extra emphasis to an adjective, so characters would express that they were super excited and super happy or that something was super cute.
Fans of the 1960s TV series Batman will be delighted to know that the legacy of Adam West and Burt Ward shines bright. Onomatopoeic words such as ka-pow, thwack, and arrrghhh remain popular, revealing the enduring appeal of comics.
Possibly influenced by the Steven Spielberg movie, The BFG (starring Mark Rylance), the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth and the publication of the OUP’s very own Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, the Big Friendly Giant spawned a host of new characters (such as BFR = Big Friendly Rabbit) and Dahlesque vocabulary in more than 200 stories based around the BFG. For example, we have several new creations inspired by Roald Dahl’s bobswinkles in The Bouuffant Hairdo by a girl of 9: “The BFG shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Squashwobbles! Bobswinkles!’ … The BFG was getting ready for the party. ‘Oh, I am as nervpompous as a skittish brittle!’ He murmured excitedly.”
Children used an impressively wide range of global locations in their 2017 stories. Understandably the most frequently mentioned place is London, but after England, the countries most mentioned are America, France and Australia, with stories also set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Adjectives such as discombobulating and pulchritudinous, or adverbs like surreptitiously and conspiratorially, show a sophisticated grasp of English, and an equally sophisticated sense of humour is revealed in jokes around grammar. A girl of 7 writes in Gabby the girl in Geeky Glasses: “In English lesson Gabby overflowed with adventurous adjectives, vibrant verbs, nerdy nouns and surprising similes.”
Another favourite film delivered the longest word for this year: it is Mary Poppins’s old favourite supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with its 34 letters that scoops that accolade.
Lewis Carnie, Head of BBC Radio 2, said: “OUP’s insightful analysis of this year’s 500 Words entries reveals the wonderful imagination, creativity, and clever use of language used by the young writers of these stories. Chris Evans had the idea for a Radio 2 children’s story-writing competition seven years ago, and I’m immensely proud that it’s now a phenomenon, attracting a record 131,798 entries this year.”