Coronavirus is the 2020 Oxford Children’s Word of the Year!
2020 marks the 10th anniversary of BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show and Chris Evans’ 500 Words short story competition, and saw more than 134,000 children submit entries, hitting the millionth story milestone!
As part of ongoing language and lexical research, the Oxford Children’s Dictionaries & Language Data team at Oxford University Press has, for the ninth year running, analysed all of the entries to reveal a wealth of insights into children’s evolving use of language and identify the 2020 Oxford Children’s Word of the Year as coronavirus.
In previous years, the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year has been 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.
“She was scared that the lockdown could last a whole year! With cars and pedestrians dwindling, Wuhan was at a standstill.”
The Boy in the Park, girl aged 10
In many stories, the word is specifically associated with China, and many narratives contain realistic physiological and medical details associated with the coronavirus.
Problem-solving and finding a cure
However, the young writers also show a delightful blend of humour, fantasy, and creativity as they write about searching for cures and dive into science fiction.
One child (aged 12) even wrote about Salmonella, Flu, and Legionnaire’s Disease joining forces against coronavirus, whilst others recruited a little help from Smurfs, unicorns, drones and magic potions!
“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
The competition closed on 27 February—before the first case of transmission within the UK was documented and weeks before the UK lockdown—meaning that many of the children’s coronavirus science fiction stories, today reflect real life in the UK.
“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
Boys and girls wrote almost equally on the topic; however, the subject of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic was covered more in older children’s writing (10-13 years).
Climate change, current affairs, and activism
Alongside coronavirus, the terrible bush fires in Australia and ongoing fears of the effects of climate change also feature strongly in this year’s stories, showing that Britain’s children 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.
Climate change and activism
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 also jumped significantly 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—Greta 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
Storms Ciara and Dennis (which swept across Britain in winter 2019) also feature, inspiring stirring descriptions in a number of stories:
“It was the night of the storm Ciara, the wind whistled, the thunder was as loud as seven cars falling from the sky”
The Silhouetted Figure, girl aged 10
Helen Freeman, Director of Children’s 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, and 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 key highlights:
- Children are writing about social media and technology more than ever. It even inspired creative language use, with ‘Cyber-’ and ‘Insta-’ both popular prefixes for creating new portmanteau words.
- YouTube continues to be the most-mentioned social media platform. Mentions of Instagram are not far behind though, 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).
- The longest word used this year was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Explore the results
For more information and insights into children’s language in 2020, download the full report on the Oxford University Press website.