Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji: The Rapid Evolution of a Wordless Tongue

Photo: Zohar Lazar
Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji
The rapid evolution of a wordless tongue.
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Consider the tilde. There it is, that little squiggle, hanging out on the far-upper-left-hand side of your ­computer keyboard. The symbol dates back to ancient Greece, though tilde comes from Spanish, and in modern English it’s used to indicate “approximately” (e.g., ~30 years) or “equivalence” (x ~ y) in mathematics. And, as of this year, according to a breakdown of the website emojitracker by Luminoso, a text-­analytics company, the tilde was surpassed in usage on Twitter by the emoji symbol for “joy.” Which looks like this:.

The Joy emoji—also referred to on the ­Emojipedia website as “Face With Tears of Joy” or “the LOL Emoji” (emoji don’t have official names, just nicknames created by their users)—dates back, in North America, to roughly 2011, when Apple put a readily accessible emoji keyboard in iOS 5 for the iPhone. Which means that in three short years, Face With Tears of Joy ­vanquished the 3,000-year-old tilde.

And that’s just one emoji. If we count all emoji together—Smiling Faceand Smiling Face With Smiling Eyesand Grinning Faceand Winking Face and Smiling Face With Heart-Shaped Eyesand Kissing Faceand Kissing Face With Closed Eyesand Face With Stuck-Out Tongue With Tightly Closed Eyes, not to mention House With Gardenand Convenience Storeand Tramand Love Hoteland Ghostand Money With Wingsand Chart With Upward Trendand ­Hamburger—then emoji, as a group, are now used more frequently on Twitter than are hyphens or the numeral 5.

All of which is to say: The 3,000-year-old tilde might want to consider rebranding itself as Invisible Man With Twirled Mustache.

It’s easy to dismiss emoji. They are, at first glance, ridiculous. They are a small invasive cartoon army of faces and vehicles and flags and food and symbols trying to topple the millennia-long reign of words. Emoji are intended to illustrate, or in some cases replace altogether, the words we send each other digitally, whether in a text message, email, or tweet. Taken together, emoji look like the electronic equivalent of those puffy stickers tweens used to ornament their Trapper Keepers.

And yet, if you have a smartphone, emoji are now available to you as an optional written language, just like any global language, such as Arabic and Catalan and Cherokee and Tamil and Tibetan and English. You’ll find an emoji keyboard on your iPhone, nestled right between Dutch and Estonian. The current set is limited to 722 symbols—these are the ones that have been officially encoded into Unicode, which is an international programming standard that allows one operating system to recognize text from another. (Basically, Unicode is the reason that the text message you send from your iPhone is legible to someone with an Android phone and vice versa.) This summer, the Unicode Consortium—a U.S.-based nonprofit organization with a Pynchon­ian name that rules over all things Unicode—announced that more than 250 new emoji symbols would be added to the existing set. These new emoji range from obviously useful ones like Cloud With Rain and Dark Sunglasses to questionably useful ones like Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extendedto frankly bizarre ones like Man in Business Suit Levitating. And this fall, in response to ongoing concerns about the lack of ethnic diversity among existing emoji—most of which, if they involve human faces, are represented as vaguely Caucasian—Unicode announced that ­users should soon have the option to change the skin tone of certain emoji to different hues on the FitzPatrick scale, a “recognized standard for dermatology.”

This was very big news to emoji enthusiasts. It should be pretty big news for you, as well. We are all increasingly talking to each other through screens. A 2010 Pew report showed that teenagers text each other more frequently than they use any other form of communication, including face-to-face conversation, which comes in at No. 3. If you ask a random person, especially one under 30, what a tilde is, he will probably stare at you blankly. But he is very likely to recognize, and comprehend, Face With Tears of Joy.

In 2013, in response to the question “Do you use stickers or emoji in message apps?” 74 percent of people in the U.S. and 82 percent in China responded that they have. (Stickers are a kind of faux emoji—things like ­Seinfeld Emoji or the ­“Peanuts” characters you find on Facebook—that you can send using certain apps but that aren’t baked into Unicode.) Over 470 million Joy emoji are being sent back and forth on Twitter right now—which makes the Joy emoji the No. 1 most popular emoji on Twitter (it tends to compete for the top spot with the Heart). Lovers have successfully wooed one another with emoji. Recruiters for ISIS are using emoji in their friendly sounding, ISIS-promoting tweets. Someone put together a song-length emoji-translation video of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” while someone else translated R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” into emoji, while someone else translated all of Moby-Dick (titled, inevitably, Emoji Dick). There are no fewer than three emoji-only social networks currently in development: Emojicate,, and something called Steven. The website Emojinalysis will track your recent emoji use to analyze your emotional well-being. The rapper Drake recently got an honest-to-God tattoo of an emoji that, depending on whom you ask, means either “praying hands” or “high five”. (Drake says praying hands. “I pity the fool who high-fives in 2014,” he clarified via Instagram.)

This elasticity of meaning is a large part of the appeal and, perhaps, the genius of emoji. They have proved to be well suited to the kind of emotional heavy lifting for which written language is often clumsy or awkward or problematic, especially when it’s relayed on tiny screens, tapped out in real time, using our thumbs. These seemingly infantile cartoons are instantly recognizable, which makes them understandable even across linguistic barriers. Yet the implications of emoji—their secret meanings—are constantly in flux.

Decoding pictures as part of communication has been at the root of written language since there was such a thing as written language. “What is virtually certain,” writes Andrew Robinson in Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction, is “that the first written symbols began life as pictures.” Pictograms—i.e., pictures of actual things, like a drawing of the sun—were the very first elements of written communication, found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. From pictograms, which are literal representations, we moved to logograms, which are symbols that stand in for a word ($, for example) and ideograms, which are pictures or symbols that represent an idea or abstract concept. Modern examples of ideograms include the person-in-a-wheelchair symbol that universally communicates accessibility and the red-hand symbol at a pedestrian crossing that signals not “red hand” but “stop.”

Emoji can somewhat magically function as pictograms and ideograms at the same time. The most straightforward example is the Eggplant emoji. On one level, it looks like an eggplant and can be used to communicate “eggplant.” On another level, it looks (kind of) like a penis and can be used to communicate all manner of lascivious intent, especially when combined with a peach.As Jenna Wortham, a New York Times technology reporter, wrote in an essay about emoji for Womanzine’s emoji issue, they “have become an ever-evolving cryptographic language that changes depending on who we are talking to, and when.” In short, emoji are a secret code language made up of symbols that everyone already intuitively understands.

“When it comes to text-based communication, we’re babies,” explains Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguistics Ph.D. from Stanford who works for Idibon, a text-analytics company. As he says, we’ve learned to talk, and we’ve learned to write, but we’re only now learning to write at the speed of talking (i.e., text), sending messages over vast expanses, absent any physical contextual clues. If you are talking to someone face-to-face, you don’t need an additional word or symbol to express “I’m smiling” because you would, presumably, be smiling. The psychologist Albert Mehrabian, in an oft-cited (and occasionally criticized) study, determined in the 1950s that only 7 percent of communication is verbal (what we say), while 38 percent is vocal (how we say it) and 55 percent is nonverbal (what we do and how we look while we’re saying it). This is well and good for face-to-face communication, but when we’re texting, 93 percent of our communicative tools are negated.

Enter emoji.

an ancient stallion’s journey
a marriage proposal Illustrations by Paul Sahre

Emoji were born in a true eureka moment, from the mind of a single man: Shigetaka Kurita, an employee at the Japanese telecom company NTT Docomo. Back in the late 1990s, the company was looking for a way to distinguish its pager service from its competitors in a very tight market. Kurita hit on the idea of adding simplistic cartoon images to its messaging functions as a way to appeal to teens. The first round of what came to be called emoji—a Japanese neologism that means, more or less, “picture word”—were designed by Kurita, using a pencil and paper, as drawings on a 12-by-12-pixel grid and were inspired by pictorial Japanese sources, like manga (Japanese comic books) and kanji ­(Japanese characters borrowed from written Chinese).

Kurita wound up with 176 crude symbols ranging from smiley faces to music notes. This feature proved so popular that the other Japanese telecoms adopted it. In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone—and the global smartphone market boomed. Apple and Google both realized that, in order to crack the Japanese market, they would need to provide emoji functions in their operating systems, if only for use in Japan. So Apple buried an emoji keyboard in the iPhone where North Americans weren’t intended to find it. But eventually tech-savvy users in the U.S., who were curious about the Japanese emoji phenomenon, figured out that you could force your phone to open this hidden keyboard by downloading a Japanese-­language app, and voilà—suddenly you could bejangle your texts with a smiling Pile of Poo.

There are a handful of truly confusing emoji to the North American eye, nearly all of which can be traced to some Japanese custom or tradition. For example, in Japan, a pile of poo is considered good luck. Here’s an explanation from the Japan Times to a reader from Redmond, Washington, who wrote in after being befuddled by the abundance of golden poo charms available for sale at the Narita airport: “The product you saw is called Kin no Unko (The Golden Poo), a name that plays on the fact that the Japanese word for poop (unko) starts with the same ‘oon’ sound as a completely unrelated word that means ‘luck.’ Japanese enjoy this kind of pun—traditional storytelling is full of them—which may help explain why more than 2.5 million of the lucky little loads have sold in the last seven years.” (The article continues: “Furthermore, there is a long history of poo-related worship in Japan …”)

“But why is the pile of poo smiling?” would be the next logical question. Before we answer that, you may want to buckle yourself in, because we’re about to toboggan down the Smiling Pile of Poo Emoji Wormhole.

Every smartphone operating system—Apple, Android, etc.—has its own rendering of each emoji, including poo. Android’s pile of poo is surrounded by flies and wavy lines that suggest a poo-like stinkiness. Apple’s pile of poo has wide eyes and is smiling. Twitter’s pile of poo also has eyes but looks kind of surprised, perhaps because it’s only just realized that it’s a sentient pile of poo with eyes. So if your pile of poo is smiling, it’s likely because you have an iPhone, and someone at Apple thought it’d be fun to make the poo happy.

The programmers behind each operating system are free to design their emoji as they like. However, the emoji palette—the collection of 722 standardized emoji that are available for you to use—has been encoded by the Unicode Consortium, which was founded in 1990 and consists of a loose network of contributing members. The people who do work for ­Unicode tend to be computer-programming experts with a side interest in linguistics—a typical biography: “His hobbies include Maltese-­language advocacy.” They are, in a way, the modern analog to the devout monks who sat and diligently created illuminated manuscripts so that great written works of theology could be widely shared.

Emoji presented a new and unique dilemma to Unicode. “With most text, you don’t have things being invented left, right, and center,” says Peter Constable, the vice-president of Unicode. “The letters of English are the letters of English. We don’t have people inventing new letters of English every day.” With emoji, however, there are limitless possibilities for new symbols, and it’s literally impossible to meet the demand. And so, despite the fact that, as of 2011, you could text a cartoon pile of poo to any person in the world, people in the world were not happy. The world wanted an emoji hot dog! And an emoji avocado! And, understandably, representations of people of color! But in order to add new emoji, Unicode would have to invent them, then design them, then approve them, and then encode them. And Unicode is not in the business of inventing or designing new emoji, anymore than it would invent and design new English letters and add them to the alphabet.

Unicode did decide, however, to encode the 250 new emoji to be released this summer, which should show up on your phone as soon as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other Unicode signatories add them to their operating systems. (Apple’s iOS 8, for example, does not have the latest emoji, and the company has declined to comment on when they might go live.) None of these “new” emoji are actually new—instead, the new emoji are all either translations of preexisting font sets known as Wingdings and Webdings, or they are fairly boring new symbols, like the ever-useful Increase Font Size Symbol.

There are, though, a few notable additions, such as that Man in Business Suit Levitating (also referred to as Jumping emoji or Hovering emoji), which is an excellent example of how the technologically convoluted path for new emoji leads to the existence of totally weird and random characters. The Wingdings font was originally developed way back in 1990 by Microsoft as a way of allowing computer users to incorporate symbols into their text, including such sexy icons as an open folderand a mailbox. A subsequent font, Webdings, was created in 1997 to allow a similar use of symbols online. In Webdings, an unusual symbol was included. It is, for lack of a better description, a man in a business suit levitating.

Internet sleuths, puzzled as to why Microsoft had decided to include this particular inexplicable symbol, tracked down one of the original Webdings designers, who explained that the symbol—which replaces the lowercase m—was intended as a tribute to the “rude boy” logo for 2 Tone Records, a ska record label founded by one of the guys from the Specials. Now, at least as far as your Unicode-reading smartphone is concerned, Man in Business Suit Levitating is as legitimate a character as the numeral 5, or the letter A, or the tilde, or poo. What that man will mean—well, that’s entirely up to you. This is the fun of emoji. The nail-painting emoji, in some circles, has come to mean “I’m not bothered” or “Haters gonna hate.” Man in Business Suit Levitating could mean “jumping for joy,” or it could mean “mystery.” (Online speculators have already nicknamed it “the Man in Black emoji.”) As Wortham explains about her favorite emoji, the Tempura Shrimp, what she loves about it is precisely the fact that it can have many different meanings. Sometimes she uses it to mean a foul or “salty” mood, when she wants to curl up like a shrimp. With some of her friends, the shrimp morphed into a joke that stands in for “Mariah Carey.” (“Something about her complexion and the way she’s always stuffed into a tube-ish dress,” Wortham writes in her shrimp essay.) Others use the shrimp as “quirky filler”—a nod, a wink, an acknowledgment that you’re simply thinking of someone. Tempura Shrimp emoji, she writes, has become “a way to be present when there’s nothing else to say at all.”

Consider the exclamation point. For much of its history, the exclamation point had a fairly simple usage: to straightforwardly and sincerely indicate excitement or, if included in a quotation, vehemence or volume. (“Get off my lawn!” as opposed to “Get off my lawn.”) Yet for a long time, circa the mid-1990s, it seemed linguistically and socially im­possible to use an exclamation point unironically. I’ll anchor this observation to Peter Bagge’s landmark grunge-­culture comic Hate!, which debuted in 1990, simply titled Hate, but which added the telltale exclamation point to its name at issue No. 16 in 1994. I’ll also add, from personal recollection, that if you included an exclamatory phrase such as “I’m so excited!” or “See you tonight!” in any written electronic correspondence up to, say, 1999, you could reliably assume it would be read as the punctuational equivalent of a smirk.

That was how my generation came to use the exclamation point, anyway. More recently, with the advent of new forms such as tweets and text messaging, the exclamation point has reverted to something closer to its original meaning. In fact, it’s more or less switched places with the period, so that “I’m excited to see you!” now conveys sincere excitement to see you, while “I’m excited to see you.” seems, on a screen at least, to imply the opposite. The exclamation point, once so sprightly and forceful, has come, according to Ben Yagoda in a piece in the New York Times, to signify “minimally acceptable enthusiasm.”

All this fluidity means that it’s very hard to keep up—it’s what the writer Emily Gould described to a friend as the “arms race of communication styling that led me to feel that sometimes only one exclamation point seems unenthusiastic or even downright sarcastic.” She was, in part, explaining her attraction to emoji—which, she wrote, “make it easier to talk about anything, I think!”

Her friend Phoebe Connelly had texted her about engagement rings—a fraught subject. Connelly often addressed her engagement using emoji: the Heart, the Diamond, the Diamond Ring, the Wedding Cake, the Party Starters. (Weirdly, though, not the Bride With Veil, the most obviously wedding-related emoji, which she avoided for reasons she can’t quite explain, even to herself.) “Emoji,” Connelly wrote in an article for the Womanzine special emoji issue, “allow me an ironic space within the dreaded cheery sincerity of being engaged. I can emoji diamond rings; therefore, it is ok that yes, I have a diamond ring. I default to emoji, a safe argot, as a means of discussing a marriage I’m emotionally ready for, but still lack the language to describe.”

When I first encountered emoji, I assumed they were used only ironically—perhaps because, as a member of Generation X, I am accustomed to irony as a default communicative mode. And it’s certainly true that emoji have proved popular, unsurprisingly, with early adopters and techno-fetishists and people with trend-sensitive antennae—the kinds of people who might, for example, download a Japanese app to “force” their iPhone to reveal a hidden emoji keyboard. But emoji have also proved to be popular with the least ­techno-literate and ironic among us, i.e., our parents. Many people I spoke to relayed that their moms were the most enthusiastic adopters of emoji they knew. One woman said that her near-daily text-message-based interaction with her mother consists almost entirely of strings of emoji hearts. Another woman, with a septuagenarian mother, revealed to me that her mom had recently sent a text relaying regret, followed by a crying-face emoji—and that this was possibly the most straightforwardly emotional sentiment her mother had ever expressed to her. 

And now we’re getting to the heart of what emoji do well—what perhaps they do better even than language itself, at least in the rough-and-tumble world online. Aside from the widespread difficulty of expressing yourself in real time with your clumsy thumbs, while hunched over a lit screen, and probably distracted by 50 other things, there’s the fact that the internet is mean. The widespread anonymity of the web has marked its nascent years with a kind of insidious incivility that we all now accept with resignation. Comment sections are a write-off. “Troll” is a new and unwelcome ­subspecies of person. Twitter’s a hashtag-strewn battlefield.

But emoji are not, it turns out, well designed to convey meanness. They are cartoons, first of all. And the emoji that ­exist—while very useful for conveying excitement, happiness, bemusement, befuddlement, and even love—are not very good at conveying anger, derision, or hate. If we can take as a given that millennials, as a generation, were raised in a digital environment—navigating, for the first time, digital relationships as an equally legitimate and in some ways dominant form of interpersonal ­interaction—it stands to reason they might be drawn to a communicative tool that serves as an antidote to ambient incivility. They might be especially receptive to, and even excited about, a tool that counteracts the harshness of life in the online world. They might be taken with emoji.

The word that came up multiple times, in many conversations, with many people about emoji was soften.

“The thing it does is soften things,” says Tyler Schnoebelen, the linguistics expert.

“I use emoji in personal emails all the time, because I feel like I’m softening the email,” says Vulture’s Lindsey Weber, who co-curated the “Emoji” art show.

Alice Robb, who is in her 20s, wrote in The New Republic about saying good-bye to a friend who was moving across the country via text message. “I texted her an emoji of a crying face. She replied with an image of a chick with its arms outstretched. This exchange might have been heartfelt. It could have been ironic. I’m still not really sure. It’s possible that this friend and I are particularly emotionally stunted, but I put at least part of the blame on emoji: They allowed us to communicate without saying anything, saving us from spelling out any actual sentiments.” And yet what’s striking is that her whole story is full of actual sentiment—she is no doubt sad that her friend is leaving, and her friend is no doubt sad to be leaving. Adding an emoji to a message doesn’t undercut those sentiments (as irony would) but rather says, “I mean this, but it’s hard to say it, and I know it’s hard, but that makes it no less true.” Emoji’s default implication isn’t irony; its default is sincerity, but sincerity that’s self-aware. If the ironic exclamation point was the signature punctuational flourish of Generation X, the emoji—that attempt to bridge the difficult gap between what we feel and what we intend and what we say and what we text—is the signature punctuational flourish of the millennials.

“There really are no negative or mean emoji,” says Weber. “There’s no violent or aggressive emoji. Even the angry faces are hilarious or silly.” Sure, there’s a pistol emoji. But imagine sending a death threat using Pistol and Angry Face. If it’s possible to “soften” a death threat, emoji would do it.

It’s frankly pretty strange that, in an online climate that is constantly being called out for excessive aggression and maliciousness, emoji have no in-built linguistic capacity for meanness. There are angry faces and frowning faces and thumbs down and even the so-called Face With No Good Gesture, which, in the Apple set, is a woman with her arms crossed in an X. But, seriously, look at her:. The Face With No Good Gesture has never actually hurt someone’s feelings. One of the many new official emoji being added as part of Unicode 7 is a raised middle finger—like all the new emoji, it’s simply being added because it’s part of the Wingdings font. At first glance, it seems pretty surly, especially for an emoji. But as an expression of aggression, it’s harmless. If the worst that online trolls could do was send you an endless string of raised-middle-finger emoji, I think we’d all agree that we’d be living in a better world.

Consider the Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes. Right now, on Twitter, Smile is being used 157,439,872 times. Popularity-wise, that ranks it as No. 8. Here are a few other popular ones: Face Savoring Delicious Food. Disappointed but Relieved. Man and Woman Holding Hands. Baby. Face Throwing a Kiss.­ Person Raising Both Hands in Celebration. Okay Hand Sign. Thumbs Up.

In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, designed a new system of symbols to be used in airports around the world in response to the increase in global travel. The 34 symbols it came up with include such undeniably resilient icons as Man Hailing Taxi, Diapered Baby, and the Suitcase symbol, which still direct people to taxi stands, changing tables, and luggage carousels around the world. But the design committee also made the following deduction: “We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited.” Symbols, they found, could only augment language, not replace it.

It’s improbable that the Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes is a permanent addition to our language; a cartoon smiling face is just about the crudest method possible to convey to someone “I’m happy.” And yet here we are. As Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at UC Irvine, explains, “when people are given the capacity to communicate in these ways, they’re picking them up and developing whole new forms of literacy.”

For now, emoji does the job. We are more connected than ever—what Ito terms a state of “ambient pervasive communication”—and we need to know that our connections are not being misunderstood. We need to let people know, even people very far away, staring at a screen, that we’re happy. Or confused. Or joking. Or missing them. Despite the popularity of the “joy” symbol, emoji are not solely being used to convey joy. My friend (the one with the crying-emoji-sending mother) sent me a combo she’s fond of: Grinning Face With Smiling Eyes with Pistol pointed to its head. (Taken together, they read as “stress,” which is particularly useful in New York.) One of my favorite emoji usages was when I asked online whether anyone could give me an emoji-only review of the VMAs on MTV and someone tweeted, simply, a Hammer emoji poised over a TV Set emoji. This was the most succinct and astute review of the show that I could find anywhere, which suggests that emoji are coming into their own as a useful linguistic tool.

Fred Benenson, who works at Kickstarter, is even more optimistic about the future of emoji. He should be: He’s the guy who, partly as an art project, partly to see if he could, spearheaded the translation of the whole of Moby-Dick into emoji. He also worked with Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard academic who’s written extensively on the ways in which apparently apolitical computer coding can influence our laws and even our human rights. So Benenson recognizes that emoji, for all their supposed transience, are an important addition to language, especially now that we do so much communicating online. “The fact that emoji is available in software legitimizes it as a form of human expression,” he says. “And especially now—we’re so intimate with these devices and we’re saying some of our most compelling things to each other in the form of text messages and social media.”

In other words, we’ve stumbled on whole new confusing ways to communicate with each other, so we’ve been given a whole new vocabulary to say “I’m laughing,” or “joy,” or “Well done.” This new way will not replace all the old ways, but it can augment them and help us muddle through. In lieu of being able to read each other’s faces when we say these things, we’ve developed these surrogate faces. They’re simple. They’re silly. They don’t yet have a taco. But they work, at least a little, at least right now. We blow each other kisses. We smile with hearts in our eyes. We cry tears of joy. We say “I love you,” but in a million different ways, each one freighted with the particular meaning we hope fervently to convey, then send them out hopefully, like a smiley face in a bottle, waiting to be received by the exact person it was intended for, and opened up, and understood completely.

*This article appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Like Us Get more great stories from delivered to your Facebook feed.