Today children are using the words hashtag, selfie and internet troll in their creative writing, as I noted in my last post. Will those words still be current in 10 years time? Children often write about what is familiar to them, so an analysis of their language at a particular time gives an interesting picture of the era. I picked up a book entitled Words Your Children Use in a second-hand bookshop. It's subtitled An Infant Vocabulary Survey and it was produced by Leicestershire Education Committee after a study carried out in a range of Leicestershire primary schools (it included very rural and very urban schools, and schools in wealthy and poorer areas) in the early 1960s. The children were broken down into three age groups, 5+, 6+ and 7+.
The vast majority of words used by children in the early 1960s are exactly those used today eg dog, birthday, seaside etc. However, words on the 1960s list that probably wouldn't make the list these days include shilling and threepenny (Britain's money hadn't yet gone decimal), cavalry, sheriff and stagecoach (reflects the types of television programmes shown, I suppose), boarding-school (probably a reflection of a common storybook genre at the time, such as the Enid Blyton Malory Towers books), typewriter, record-player, aerodrome, tea-set, and vaccinate (there was a smallpox outbreak in England and Wales in 1962). Wireless was on the list, but it was the usual British word for a radio at the time.
There is a section of the book devoted to a comparison between the language used by British children and that used by American children. Words on the American list that don't appear on any of the British lists for the different age groups include bluebird, candy, chipmunk, creek, dime, dollar, drug, gas, mail, mailman, pants, popcorn, pumpkin, trade and vacation. Although some of these words are specifically US words, others have different meanings in the UK and US, and the young British children in the survey were using the British equivalents eg petrol for gas, pants for trousers, and swap for trade.
One of the reasons for conducting the survey was to help writers and dictionary makers to base their work on words children actually use and like using, rather than words that adults think children use or think that they should use. Children's dictionaries often include words such as fridge, plate, shampoo etc, but surveys such as this show that such everyday topics have little attraction for young children when it comes to their own imaginative writing.