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Word of the Week: ‘emoji’

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We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘emoji’.


Ah, the ‘emoji’. The visual system of communication that has found its way onto phones, duvet covers, home furnishings, clothing and cinema screens. And it now has a whole day dedicated to it.

After wildly celebrating World Emoji Day 2019, the language detectives here at Speak Towers dusted off the magnifying glass and decided to get to the bottom of the word once and for all.

What does the word ‘emoji’ mean?

The word ‘emoji’ harks back to the 1990s and originated on Japanese mobile phones. Translating literally as, “picture letter”, the similarity to the English words ‘emotion’ and ‘emoticon’ is purely incidental. Tech purists at Speak like to assert that the ‘emoticon’ is a text-based graphic, whereas the ‘emoji’ is picture based.

The inventor of the ‘emoji’ – Shigetaka Kurita – based his designs on the facial expressions that he observed people making, and took inspiration from the symbols used to denote the weather forecast.

When did we first start using emojis?

Despite being invented in the late 1990s, the ‘emoji’ didn’t take off for another 10 years – driven by Apple iPhone’s inclusion of the feature in 2008.

Definitions of ‘emoji’ range from the Cambridge Dictionary’s: “a digital image that is added to a message in electronic communication in order to express a particular idea or feeling”, to the Urban Dictionary’s less-than-favourable definition of: “something that should never be used – it is humanity’s worst idea ever.”

The ‘emoji’ has made great strides since its humble inception from weather symbols. Not only was it selected as the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015, it was also added to the illustrious Scrabble list in 2018 and is Britain’s fastest growing language.

Interestingly, our use of emojis has started to impact the way we verbally communicate. It has been hypothesised, for instance, that the idiomatic use of the word ‘fire’ (as in ‘good’) is a manifestation of the commonly used fire emoji.

A whopping 72% of 18 to 25-year-olds claim to find it easier to express their feelings in ‘emoji’ pictures than the written word, a survey by Talk Talk mobile found. Researchers said, as a visual language, it has “far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop.”

And there you have it, the ‘happy poo’ emoji is comparable to one of the earliest and most sophisticated written language systems.

Roisin McCormack