More Than Words Can Say by Angela Caldin


I’ve just found out, admittedly a bit late in the day, that the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is an emoji, the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji to be precise. Can this be right I wonder; is an emoji a word or is it a pictorial representation of an emotion? Where would you put it in the dictionary? What constitutes a word anyway?

Word or Emoji?

The Oxford Dictionaries define an emoji as ‘A small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication.’ They define a word as ‘A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.’ It seems clear to me from these definitions that a word and an emoji are two different things.

As justification for naming this symbol as ‘word of the year’, Casper Grothwahl of Oxford Dictionaries refers to the OED’s century-long tradition of ‘tracking the English language around the globe’, and ‘monitoring how language is being used.’ He maintains that because the twenty-first century culture is ‘visually driven and emotionally expressive,’ pictograms or emojis ‘add a deeper subtlety and richness’ to traditional language. But to my mind that does not justify classing emojis as words: they cannot be pronounced or written or spelt; they are a pictorial representation of a feeling or a visual illustration of an emotion. They can be described in words, but they are not words themselves.

The Rise of the Emoji

The word emoji comes from Japanese e (picture) + moji (character) and it seems that emojis have been around since the late 1990s, but 2015 saw their use, and the use of the word emoji, increase dramatically. Oxford University Press in partnership with mobile technology business SwiftKey compiled the frequency of usage statistics for various emojis worldwide. The ‘face with tears of joy’ emerged as the most used emoji globally in 2015. It accounted for 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014. The word emoji has seen a similar flowering: although it has been found in English since 1997, usage more than tripled in 2015 over the previous year. (I have to confess I didn’t know the word and was still using the term emoticon.)

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

It’s undeniable that emojis are now common shorthand currency for expressing thoughts and emotions and responses. They are no longer the preserve of teenage texters but are widely used by all age groups. Hillary Clinton sent out a tweet asking, ‘How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.’ (She should, of course, have said 3 emojis or fewer, but that’s another story.) Author Joe Hale has translated both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan into emoji, though he recommends reading these with the original texts close by – he describes his efforts as ‘a visual aid to inspire the imagination’.

There, I think, he has put his finger on it: emojis are a visual aid, a shortcut to expressing feelings and supplying responses to bad or good news. We are all communicating more and more through screens, looking for abbreviated ways of saying things. Sometimes if people are struggling for words and the words they find seem trite or insincere or laboured, an emoji can convey what they want to say in one graphic image. No need for texting with spaces and punctuation, just one pictogram for instant communication. Emojis are unlikely to take over from words, but they can augment them, liven them up and add a bit of fun to our messages.

One Comment on “More Than Words Can Say by Angela Caldin

  1. Go for it, Ange. Good to know you are back on the scene. Come on Em, your turn next. Just because you have a partner, three children, a dog and a cat, and a full-time job are no excuse (or should that be excuses, Ange?)

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