It started about six months ago, with a smiley face here and there, a sequence of pictograph red hearts when friends would send baby pictures or a string of blown kisses to say good night. I especially liked the face with a toothy, uncomfortable-looking grimace: “Yikes,” it seemed to say. Perfect for “I’m sorry I’m late!” or “Eek, it’s 1 p.m. and I just woke up.”
Eventually I was replacing words with characters, adding a series of flexing biceps to the encouraging “you can do it!” text. Then one day I spent a full 10 minutes obsessing over the perfect way to say “I’m a writer. I don’t do math” in a message to my accountant: [Girl symbol] (meaning me) + [Pen and paper] (writer) + [calculator] (math) = “?!?!?” Right, it doesn’t sound so complicated. But by finding said emoji, putting them in sequence and spacing them out, I could have typed the statement 17 times. Mid-composition, I got a phone call from a source I had been waiting to talk to. I pressed ignore.
This was emoji chaos; it had to stop.
The roots of smiley faces and emoticons go back to the 1880s, but the story of the emoji, those little pictorial icons on your cellphone, began in Japan in the mid-1990s when it was added as a special feature to a brand of pagers popular with teenagers. It wasn’t until 2008 that a uniform emoji alphabet was created (the idea was to minimize inconsistency across platforms), and Apple adopted it in 2011, adding it to its iOS5 operating system.
But what was once the domain of tech geeks and Honshu tweens has infected the masses. Emoji was crowned as this year’s top-trending word by the Global Language Monitor, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (funny, because it’s a word that describes the concept of not actually using words). There is now a blog, Emojinalysis, that purports to psychoanalyze users’ most frequently used emoji (take a screenshot and send); a beta site, Emoj.li, for the first emoji-only social network (yes, as in only emoji); and the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit devoted to emoji standardization across platforms, recently said it would add 250 emoji to Apple, Microsoft and Google products. I seriously considered adding an emoji sequence to my résumé this week.
“A guy just asked me out in emoji [wineglass] + [boy-girl faces] + [?],” a friend told me, when I asked if she thought we had reached an emoji tipping point. “We carried on an emoji-only conversation for about 45 minutes.”
According to the website Emojitracker, which uses Twitter to calculate emoji usage, people are averaging 250 to 350 emoji tweets a second. Smiley faces and hearts abound, but there are more complicated sequences, too. There’s emoji as punctuation [excited face], as emphasis [sob], as a replacement for words (“Can’t wait for [palm trees] [sun] [swim]!”) or to replace words altogether. (The accompanying emoji graphic, recently sent by a friend, describes a weekend date that started out well, including a trip to the vineyards of Sonoma County, but then ended with her realization that the relationship would go no further. Hence: a frustrated face symbol.)
There is emoji for when you don’t really know what to say, but don’t want to be rude by not responding [Thumbs up], and for when you just don’t really want to respond at all. “I love emoji because I don’t like to make small talk,” one woman said. There are emoji sequences to express real-life concepts, too. “In the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling,” said Caroline McCarthy, a start-up consultant, “I created an emoji sequence for ‘vasectomy.’ ” It was: [scissors], [eggplant], [screaming face].
In their short life, emoji managed to find an exceptional cultural range: One Internet wit put out an emoji translation of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” and an emoji-only version of “Moby Dick,” called “Emoji Dick,” was recently accepted into the Library of Congress. Legal experts have even discussed whether an emoji death threat [gun and face] could be admissible in court. “I’m not sure you can really speak of it as a full-fledged language yet,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist, “but it does seem to have fascinating combinatorial possibilities. Any sort of symbolic system, when it’s used for communication, is going to develop dialects.”
As with any new medium, there are growing pains. “Even with my glasses on, I can’t see those little things very well,” said Ruth Ann Harnisch, 64, a writer and philanthropist. Emoji also tend to mistranslate when sent between platforms, or they get jumbled if you don’t have the right font. So while a heart may be a heart on your phone, it may end up as a series of glitch squares on Facebook or if you read your email in Chrome. (Conducting interviews about emoji, over multiple platforms, was a comedy of misinterpretations.)
The current emoji package has been criticized as too limited: not enough emoji diversity, and in the height of the summer vacation season, not even a lobster icon (no crabs, either). There’s also a certain subjective quality to the sequences. Depending on whether you think the little face with the teardrop on his forehead is sweating or crying, your friend may have either just been dumped or been to SoulCycle. “I think it’s clear that a rough grammar exists for emoji, or is at least emerging,” said Colin Rothfels, a developer who maintains a Twitter feed, @anagramatron, that collects tweets (and thus emoji) that are anagrams.
The Unicode Consortium, the agency that governs this sort of thing, is in the process of rolling out its new emoji icons — including a hot pepper (hot or spicy) and a man in a business suit levitating (jump). And yet, more options may only exacerbate a problem well known to those fluent in emoji-speak (or at least this person fluent in it): With no standardized keyboard, how are we supposed to sort through all of those options?
It’s enough to make anyone want to [scream face].
Related Quiz: Are You Fluent in Emoji?
An article last Sunday about emoji, icons used for shorthand communication, misspelled the name of a blog on the subject. It is Emojinalysis, not Emojanalysis.
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