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Lol or pulchritudinous: which words do children really use in their writing?

’Twas a caliginous night. . .

Fingers on your buzzers, please. Which of the following would you expect children today to use in their writing: gr8, lol, apotropaic, caliginous, cerulean? Yes, that’s right, the last three. This is just one of the happy findings from the BBC Radio 2 500 Words short story competition, run by the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. Defying notions that the next generation would soon be writing only in ‘txtspk’, it seems that children have been quietly getting out their dictionaries and exploring the language that grown-ups have forgotten. Lesser-known adjectives such as caliginous (I had to look it up, too) pepper the stories written by under-13s from all over the UK, the texts of which have now been made available to Oxford children’s lexicographers to analyse how language is used by children. And what a treat they are for logophiles. Stentorian (named after the loud-mouthed herald in the Iliad) has always been one of my favourite words, so it is soul-warming (I stole that from a 500 Words story) to see it being used by children themselves, not just in stories written for them. But it’s not only standout words like lachrymose and pulchritudinous (used in multiple stories) that warm my lexicographer’s soul. It is the fact that children have taken the trouble to use adjectives like crocodilian and vulpine, because after all, how much more sinister does vulpine sound than fox-like? (‘I didn’t even know,’ said a journalist who was interviewing me about the research, ‘that there was a word crocodilian.’) And doesn’t a scientist who studies the Moon sound more impressive as a selenologist rather than, well, a scientist who studies the Moon? Just ask a 500 Words author.

Something old something new

Secret agents (and their arch enemies) abound in the 500 Words stories, and they come accessorized – with devices that put Inspector Gadget in the shade. Never used a shrinkiniser? You don’t know what you’re missing. Remote control not powerful enough? The shutdownatron will switch off just about anything. Or for those megalomaniac moments, you can’t beat a takeovertheworldinator. All these neologisms have been dreamt up by a new generation of wordsmiths. And it’s not just the gadgets that need new names: there are hybrid creatures (pandaroos and parraphants), mythological monsters (werbats and minosaurs), artificial life forms (dino-droids and cyclo-bots), and futuristic transport (anyone for the astro-bus?). Note the nifty neo-classical prefix. It’s not just a space bus, it’s an astro-bus. Alongside these crafty compounds, the authors have come up with new and elegant derivatives. What language would a hippogriff speak? Why hippogriffian, of course. The evidence from 500 Words suggests that children are as creative in their language as in their plots and characters.

As well as coining their own words, children have been recycling old favourites from their literary mentors – or should that be dementors? Unsurprisingly, both dementors and death-eaters have been given a life beyond Hogwarts, as the names pop up in new stories by Potter fans. But earlier authors get a look-in, too. Tolkien revived the word orc (based on the Old English word for demon) and here it is being used for a variety of evil creatures by a new generation, as is Lewis Carroll’s bandersnatch (no longer frumious, but far from friendly). Children’s literature is also influencing spelling. The spellings faerie and vampyre, both of which feature widely in the stories, seem oddly archaic (the Oxford English Dictionary’s last example of faerie in this sense is from Milton), but are really part of a recent trend in books for children with titles such as Faerie Heart and Vampyre Labyrinth. Are children harnessing the archaic spellings for effect, or simply using variants which are as familiar to them through their reading as the more modern forms? This is the sort of question that gives children’s lexicographers sleepless nights, and I foresee several to come. Now if only I had a shutdownotron

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