Plastic is the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year because of its significant increase in use in 500 Words (a total rise of more than 100% on the 2017 competition), the awareness and passion children demonstrated for environmental issues, and the creative solutions to combat them that children invented in their stories. This demonstrated the huge impact the final episode of David Attenborough's Blue Planet II (screened on BBC1 in December 2017) had on the nation’s children.
Children use plastic in their stories in an emotive way to convey their understanding of the damage pollution is causing to marine life, drawing on their creativity and imagination to deliver powerful descriptive imagery in stories, with titles such as The Plastic Shore, The Mermaid’s Plastic Mission andThe Evil Mr Plastic. For example:
“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...” (Save The Planet, boy aged 7).
Children are also taking matters into their own hands to come up with inventive 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).
Some stories are even told from the point of view of the 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 jelly fish, killing and collecting helpless sea life. A blanket of plastic suffocating the ocean. None of us belong here.” (Misplaced, girl aged 8).
Correspondingly, use of the terms recycle and recycling each have also increased by more than 100%, as have packaging, pollution, plastic bottle, plastic bag, and plastic waste. Biodegradable and permeable entered the stories for the first time and the word ocean, and many of its real or imagined inhabitants (whale, dolphin, turtle, shark, penguin, octopus, and of course, mermaid) also saw marked rises. The phrase litter picking appears for the very first time, with phrases such as: “After watching recent events on the news about plastic ruining the oceans, she had organised a beach litter picking event with her friends.” (Mermaid SOS! girl aged 11).
Vineeta Gupta, Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says: “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.”
“An empty plastic bottle they had carelessly discarded bobbed up and down at the water's edge. The pull of the tide gradually lured it further and further out to sea with each rise and swell of the waves. Yet another unwelcome plastic alien invader in the beautiful big blue sea that one less whale now calls home.” (The Big Blue, boy aged 10)