‘Refugee’ revealed as Children’s Word of the Year by Oxford University

  • Oxford University Press and BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show ‘500 WORDS’ competition reveals fascinating insights into British children’s use of language
  • OUP results released ahead of the 500 WORDS live final, Friday 27 May from Shakespeare’s Globe, London
  • Honorary Judge, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, to present the winners’ prizes

Refugees, Tim Peake, Star Wars, Shakespeare, and social media 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 123,436 entries for the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Breakfast Show’s 500 WORDS short story competition, a wealth of fascinating insights into the lives of British children and their imaginative use of English have emerged. The winners of this year’s competition will be announced live on-air on Friday 27 May in a very special broadcast of the Breakfast Show live from Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, in London. This year, HRH Duchess of Cornwall is an Honorary Judge. Her Royal Highness will attend the Final and present the Gold winners’ prizes. Celebrities including Julie Walters, Warwick Davis, Andy Serkis, Nick Jonas and Raleigh Ritchie will be reading out the Bronze, Silver, categories (5-9 and 10-13 years), and One Republic, All Saints, and Foxes will be performing with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the London Community Gospel Choir during the show.

‘Refugee’ is the Children’s Word of the Year, due to a significant increase in usage by entrants writing in this year’s competition combined with the sophisticated context that children were using it in and the rise in emotive and descriptive language around it. Despite the tenderness of their years, youngsters show a sensitive and mature understanding of the issues involved (the war in Syria, the journey across the Mediterranean, people smugglers, the camps in Calais) and they wrote compassionate, moving stories. The subject matter was mostly the plight of children their own age leaving home and undertaking difficult journeys, with powerful descriptive language and visual imagery— showing how they respond to what they see on TV, in newspapers, and on the internet. There was also a marked increase in vocabulary associated with refugee, words such as boat, camp, dinghy, crisis, border, shelter, journey, sea, desperate, safe, flee, travel, and trek. OUP’s analysis of the stories found that the attitude towards refugees was empathetic.

One entrant wrote ‘I’m in France . . . place called Calais. It turns out that nobody wants us after all. There was no gold at the end of the rainbow. I have no idea when or how I will get away from this prison’; whilst another said ‘“Son our neighbours just got bombed. We’re lucky we weren’t in the house! It’s decided we’re going!” “Ok . . .” Replied Yusuf solemnly “I’ll go pack . . .” This was a tough time for Yusuf. He was going to leave his friends, School and home.’

Vineeta Gupta, Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says “The children writing in this year’s competition have demonstrated a sophisticated use of language in their storytelling. They have used rich descriptions to convey emotion and have produced powerful stories that resonate with the reader. Our extensive research has provided a deeper understanding of children’s language skills across the UK and we continue to be inspired by their creativity.” Chris Evans says “This analysis has once again proved fascinating. OUP’s research has shown how aware and engaged children are with the world around them, not just at home, but globally and even inter-galactically! The imagination of kids never ceases to amaze me and I’m so proud that BBC Radio 2’s 500 WORDS has again fired up their creativity and shown how talented and inspiring the young people of the United Kingdom are.”

Using specialized software for the first time in the 500 WORDS competition, all the entries were analysed by an academic and technology team from Oxford University. Each word was scrutinized in relation to the words around it, enabling the experts to determine how positive or negative it was. The ‘happiest’ words used were adventure, heart, chocolate, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, school and teacher. The ‘scariest’ words were monster, dragon, fire, house, and door.

Taking their analysis a stage further, the Oxford University linguists were also able to determine the top positive and negative words from different parts of the UK. In England top positive words were school and adventure, in Scotland teacher and school, and in Wales they were friends and light. Top negative word in England was day, door in Scotland, and dragon in Wales. In Northern Ireland top negative words were fire and time, and in the Channel Islands it was day and eyes. Top positive words in Northern Ireland were dad and family – it was dad and mum in the Channel Islands. The entries with the highest overall levels of ‘happiness’ were from Llandudno in Wales.

500 WORDS went interstellar in 2016, and that is because one person really captured children’s imaginations—Tim Peake. The British astronaut was a new entry in the Top 10 list of famous people appearing in the stories. Many stories featured children meeting Tim and travelling to the International Space Station—‘A man in a spacesuit approached them, “Hello, I’m Tim Peake, welcome to the ISS. You must be very tired after the adventures you’ve had finding us”.’ Words associated with space also showed significant increases in usage on previous years—spacewalk, space station, astronaut, asteroid, space shuttle, and rocket all zoomed up. Again, children drew inspiration from visual imagery—‘I was watching the news on TV. Tim Peake, the Astronaut was space walking to remove a mystery object that was stuck on the space station.’

The other space word that saw a huge boost in use was galaxy—this could be due to a film that famously starts ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .’ This iconic phrase also saw a 274% increase in use on the previous year. The release of the latest Star Wars movie really captured the imagination, resulting in a plethora of lightsabres and Stormtroopers, plus references to Princess Leia, Rey, Han Solo, Darth Vader, and of course for the first time, Kylo Ren. Children were inspired by the film to create their own words and language—‘One morning when I woke up I couldn’t stop thinking about my dream last night of a crazy but kind robot called botvader’—or even to mash-up the characters with figures from American politics—‘He threw chairs, tables and smashed plates on the floor. Then his short burst of rage suddenly ended. He thought to himself. “What was that and how on earth did this happen.” The next morning his business partner Donald Trump came in and he fired Luke Skywalker for horrible work.’

After hashtag – and the symbol used to represent it ‘#’ – triumphed as Children’s Word of the Year in 2015, the irrepressible rise of social media was just as strong in 2016. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram continue to appear liberally in stories from the 10–13 age group, and the term social media itself is becoming far more common. Three text-speak abbreviations were widely used—OMG, BFF, and LOL. Notably, this year showed a significant increase in the use of computing and coding words—stories included use of words like server, cache, malware, and URL.

Once again, OUP looked at top characters from real life and fiction—both historical and contemporary—to see who really resonates with children in the UK. In this year’s Top 10, Characters Santa Claus takes first place, followed by 2) Zeus, 3) Lionel Messi, 4) Cristiano Ronaldo, 5) Adolf Hitler, joint 6th) William Shakespeare and Cinderella, 7) Snow White, 8) Tim Peake 9) James Bond, and 10) Harry Potter. This being the year of Shakespeare 400 (marking four centuries since his death), the Bard makes an appearance in the Top 10 for the first time ever, and many of his characters’ names, such as Banquo and Prospero show a 1,000% increase in use, whilst Fleance, Orsino, and Malvolio are used for the first time. David Cameron is the most frequently mentioned politician closely followed by US figures Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

OUP’s research has found that spelling has consistently improved during the five years since 500 WORDS launched. The top five words which are now more frequently being spelt correctly are accidentally, frantically, definitely, doesn’t, and beginning. However, there are two words that children still really struggle with—soldiers and minute, the latter having 20 different error forms (the most frequent being minuet, which wouldn’t get picked up by a spellchecker).

As always, a big favourite with the 500 WORDS judges and the OUP team is the invented word. Where a term simply does not exist to name or describe something, children will create one. Their creativity was charmingly evidenced in the form of phantasmagorical monsters like the weti (a water yeti) or the campaigning manffragettes (who fight for men’s rights). A coveted title amongst the competitors is for the Longest Word. This year’s winner, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, is a whopping 45 letters and a very real respiratory disease.

500 WORDS Report 2016