Every year the Oxford Dictionary names one word as the Word of the Year. These languages experts say this year’s word “was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” The shocking thing about this announcement was that the “word” they chose isn’t a word at all, it was an emoji known as “The Face with Tears of Joy.” In 2015, this emoji was the most popular one among smartphone users worldwide in according to Swiftkey, a mobile technology business.

The Origins of Emoji

As a word of explanation, emojis come to us from Japan where they were originally started in the 1990’s to keep cell phone data use down. The word emoji comes from the Japanese e (picture) and moji (written character). When Apple started selling iPhones in Japan, they accepted the Japanese emoji into their phone. The rest is history as emojis have now spread to Andoid and other operating systems as well as to online services like Instagram.
Emojis are often pictures of common things like faces, food, animals, and weather. They express a range of emotions or activities like the emotion that is shown in Face with Tears of Joy emoji. Emojis are most often presented in color, but there can be black and white versions, as well. As you can see in the illustration below, each row represents the same emoji, but each looks different.

How Did Emoji Become “Universal”?

In 2010, emoji characters were incorporated into Unicode, a standard system for universal text that represents the text of every language. Encoding in the Unicode standard has allowed emoji to become popular around the world. Adding characters to the encoding standard involves a long, formal process which can take a year or more for acceptance. However, the popularity of emojis has pressured the Unicode Consortium to add many new characters. This year they have added emoji with different skin tones as well as a turkey, face with thermometer, popcorn, taco, and hot dog (just to name a few).
Unicode defines the representation of the icon, but the software determines what characters are available on your device and exactly what they look like. The manufacturer has the option to add whimsy and expression, so the Apple, Android, and Microsoft versions of the same emoji may be different.
To get emojis into your text messages you may need to add them to the keyboard of your device through the device settings. If you receive an emoji that you aren’t familiar with, you can look it up at the Emojipedia. As shown below, the Bing search engine has recently started accepting emoji queries and you can also look them up at iemoji.com.
The world of technology has brought about many changes in our lives, but this move toward a universal language is not only unprecedented, is also being widely accepted. On Instagram, the wildly popular photo-sharing site, nearly 40 percent of the posts contain at least one emoji. In Finland, that emoji usage number on Instagram climbs to more than 63 percent. In Finland Emojis are so popular that they have created a series of 30 new national emojis (like the Finnish Sauna). On Twitter, you can order a pizza from Dominos with a pizza emoji. Other companies like Starbucks are experimenting with their own “tweet-to-order” emojis.
Emojis just keep getting more and more popular. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam and Qualcomm Research have recently developed an emoji search engine for videos called emoji2video. So if you click on the angry face emoji you get a link to a video called, “Hilarious angry kid yells at mom”.
A string of emojis are often used together to form rudimentary sentences making it a near-universal method of expression. They can also be combined and repeated to emphasize your message, as in the “rainy day” group below.
Yet there are some drawbacks to emojis. These pictures can develop different overtones and usage depending on the language and culture of the user. Even within the same culture, the meaning of certain emojis can differ from user to user. Also, emojis can be used as nouns, verbs, or adjectives. So when they are strung together, the user tends to use the structure of their own language. So you might find the adjective and/or verb substitute at differing positions just as you do with different languages.
As all languages, there are some gross representations as well as cheerful ones. The reversed hand with middle finger extended and a pile of poo are always among the top ten most used emojis. For the more cheerful crowd, the smiling face and face throwing a kiss are also very popular.
Emoji is a brilliant, universal method of communicating. Like everyone else, I love to use them to add a quick bit of color and emotion to plain text messages. They help to make up for the lack of gestures, voice tone, and facial expressions that you get in real conversations.
As you can gather from the “word of the year”, emojis have become an entirely new language. It will be interesting to see where they go from here. In the meantime, they are a great way to spice up messages and have some fun.