Harry, Hobbits and Hamsters Gangnam Style

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BBC Radio 2’s 500 WORDS and Oxford University Press’ research reveals that
Mum’s THE word and fairy tales and fantasy still cast their spell over children’s imaginations
Are you sitting comfortably? Then, we’ll begin… Once upon a time, Chris Evans launched a short story competition for children on BBC Radio 2 called 500 Words. And the response? Well, it was magical!

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This year, over 90,000 youngsters entered their stories. The resultant 40 million words were, for the second year running, analysed by lexicographers at Oxford University Press. The analysis has revealed a wealth of fascinating insights into the lives of British children and the remarkable ways they use English.
Mum is far and away THE word of 500 WORDS 2013, with over 115,000 occurrences and regional variations, including mom and mam. Poor dad only just scrapes into the Top 15, although interestingly he does star as an action man in several of the Top 50 shortlisted stories – fighting aliens, exploding, and building a time machine!

Children are fanatical about fairy tales and mad for magic, with dragons, monsters, giants, fairies and wizards dominating the 500 WORDS corpus. Only man’s best friend can rival dragons and monsters in the numbers stakes with dog appearing over 25,000 times. Cinderella is the most mentioned leading lady – well and truly beating Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen – the lead characters in Twilight and The Hunger Games. Cinders is also mentioned more times than ANY real celebrity – a result which bodes well for the Kenneth Branagh film version due for release in 2014.

Despite the fact the Harry Potter franchise reached its conclusion in 2012, the young wizard makes multiple appearances along with other JK Rowling characters and vocabulary. The word magic is conjured up nearly 10,000 times (an increase of 7.5% on 2012). Interestingly, uses of the word wand far outweigh technology words such as an app, or ipad.

Youngsters of 9-years old and under are more likely to use fairy-tale references in their writing than older children, hence the frequency of magic, castle, adventure, dragon and fairy. In contrast, 10-13 year olds reveal a taste for the Gothic in their use of darker words, such as pain, blood, death, silence and darkness.

In the afterglow of Skyfall’s box office success and his 50th anniversary celebrations, James Bond is by far the most popular fictional character. He is name-checked nearly 1,000 times, while spy is even more popular (and his 00 code number appears in variations from 001 to 009).

Following hot on the heels of 007, is all-conquering boy band One Direction. They are the most popular music act (and yes, Harry Styles is the most popular band member). Top Gear is the favourite TV show, followed by Tracy Beaker, Doctor Who, EastEnders and Britain’s Got Talent. Chris Evans retains his crown as most popular individual celebrity – followed by the likes of singer Tulisa (who beats Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber!) and footballer Lionel Messi.

The most popular new word this year is gangnam (while Psy himself makes his 500 WORDS’ celebrity chart debut at number 22). Onesie also enjoys an upsurge from 2012, but the relatively low occurrence of totes (totally), yolo (you only live once), amazeballs and belieber indicate that youthful slang is not all-pervasive.

The London Olympics clearly has an enduring legacy, with more children featuring the Games in their stories this year. Interestingly, the majority of references came from stories penned well away from London, in places such as Wales, the Scottish Highlands & Islands and Devon. Usain Bolt sprints ahead in the poll of most popular sports person, tying for Gold with last year’s winner Wayne Rooney. Bolt also holds the distinction of being the only sportsman to feature in the girls’ celebrity top 10. This year’s 500 WORDS corpus is also notable for featuring members of our Team GB Paralympians, including Ellie Simmonds and David Weir.

In a refreshing demonstration of how flights of fantasy encourage them to be creative, children are inventing words like fabdabidabulous and phantasmagorical creatures such as the lumbagain (“a ghost who makes people dull and boring”) and dulbodogfragonaffe (“a very big animal with the head of a duck and the mane of a lion, plus the neck of a giraffe and the body of a horse…”), gadgets like the shrinkinganator and places such as Mirangodangowangolopitis. The longest word, at a whopping 36 letters, is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia – which is a real word and, of course, means fear of long words!

The word car appears over 26,000 times, with a substantial number featured in the girls’ stories. But, whilst Ford is the most popular model in the OUP’s corpus of adult writing, our young authors have proved far more aspirational, with the Ferrari taking the top slot. Similarly, whilst the adults’ top two-noun groups (car park, kitchen table, cell phone) betray a preoccupation with the mundane, younger imaginations are more like to seize upon time machines, space ships and tree houses!

Jack and Lucy are the most frequently occurring names, topping the list for a second year running, and indicating that children haven’t yet embraced the names favoured by their parents. Amelia, the most popular name given to babies born in England and Wales in 2011, doesn’t even feature in the Top 10, whilst Harry only manages Number 8. Despite the proliferation of fizzy drinks, milk is still the top choice to accompany a cheese sandwich and chocolate is children’s favourite snack. Facebook is the social media platform referred to the most.

Finally, the next generation of writers have wowed us once more with their vocabulary and the 500 WORDS team had to refer to their dictionaries a few times! Impressive adjectives include altitudinous, antediluvian, atramentous and melanistic, whilst imaginative similes and metaphors abound.

Vineeta Gupta, Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press says “Children are true innovators with words and language and have produced such creative and powerful stories. It is wonderful to see how children are taking traditional themes, words and stories and transforming them into tales for the 21st century audience. We poured the millions of words used by the young writers into our language cauldron and ‘magicked’ up a whole host of fascinating findings that will shine a light on our children’s language research in the future.”

Chris Evans says “I was staggered to find out we’d received over 90,000 entries for this year’s 500 WORDS competition. The creativity of these awesome authors knows no bounds – we have dragons, monsters, wizards, space-ships – and some of these super story-tellers are even inventing new words. Inspirational or what?”

Bob Shennan, Controller BBC Radio 2 says “500 WORDS is a wonderful way of encouraging children across the country to put pen to paper and let their imaginations loose. The Breakfast show – the network’s biggest show – is the perfect home for a competition of this nature. It’s wonderful to see how its popularity goes from strength to strength each year.”

The six winners of this year’s 500 Words will be announced live on-air on Friday 31 May at the Hay Festival – with each young author hearing their words brought to life by a superstar narrator during a live broadcast of The Chris Evans Breakfast Show.

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