I am 43-years-old and a professional writer, yet I use emojis on a daily basis.
Three years ago, I decided that enough was enough and it was time to revert to communicating solely with the English language. I announced the fact publicly as a way of encouraging myself to stick to my promise, even deleting the emoji keyboard from my phone.
I didn’t use a single emoji for a year — but I missed them the whole time. (Well, not the whole time —that would be weird — but whenever I was messaging friends.) Eventually, I decided to break my self-imposed ban, and I’ve been emoji-ing all over the place ever since.
At first, I was left with a lurking sense of shame. I use words for a living! They are my raw material; the substance with which I build. Surely I should be able to convey the nuance of my thoughts and emotions without lazily falling back on pre-made picture icons?
As time has gone by, though, I’ve come to terms with the situation. I’m more than capable of expressing myself entirely in words — of course I am. But when sending messages to friends, I would argue that emojis are a fast and convenient shorthand.
Emojis were created in Japan in 1999 by programmer Shigetaka Kurita. The word literally means “picture character” — it has no connection to the word “emotion”. Emojis are also not the same as “emoticons” which are made up of individual keyboard characters, eg “:-)”.
Modern communication is text-based, quickfire and informal. Whether you love or hate this fact — it is a fact. Under those circumstances, being able to use an emoji to convey tone of voice is a huge help. A smiley face, for example, can soften a comment that may otherwise be construed as angry or irritated. A laughing emoji is an obvious way to tell someone that you found what they just sent you funny — and the rolling-your-eyes one (a personal favourite) can be used in all manner of situations.
The meaning of some of them can be hard to fathom. For example, I had always assumed that the emoji of a person with lowered head under a row of triangles meant “banging your head on the table in frustration”. I realised that my interpretation of it may have had something to do with my own preoccupations, so I asked my friends what they thought it meant. Answers ranged from “studying”, “praying”, “reading” and “looking for something”, to the more surreal “just been hit on the head with a frying pan”, “thinking about cheese” and “tunnelling out of Stalag Luft III”.
The best-known emojis are probably those with facial expressions, but there are hundreds more, ranging from clothing and animals, to food, flags and vehicles. I have found few situations where being able to send someone a picture of a ferris wheel or a flying saucer or a hedgehog was genuinely useful. But then, perhaps that’s just because my life isn’t sufficiently interesting.
Emojis are a blunt instrument, lacking subtlety and sophistication, but they’re a quick way of adding personality to your messages, of creating empathy with what you’re saying. And, importantly, they’re fun.
Unless, of course, you are the type of person who just hates them. “Is there an emoji to express how irritating emojis are?” asks my husband.
My friend Adi is a self-confessed English-language obsessive; in fact she has even published a book about grammar. Emojis are positive anathema to her, so it can be quite amusing to send her them just to make her wince.
There was an outcry when, in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary announced that the “crying with laughter” emoji was its Word of the Year. I strongly suspect that this outrage, and the publicity that accompanied it, were exactly what the OED was hoping for.
But communicating an idea with a picture is by no means a modern phenomenon. Take, for example, the early Canaanite alphabet. This script, which preceded the written Hebrew we know today, used letter formations resembling an object that started with the letter in question. For example, a gimmel looked like a camel: “gamal”, and a daled like a door: “delet”.
Similarly, the five-thousand year-old cuneiform script used pictograms in its earliest incarnation.
Like emojis, these systems employed marks on the page directly to represent an idea, as opposed to the written word, which represents a sound that the brain then has to translate into an idea.
So, I have at last made peace with my emoji addiction, and I’m left with just one complaint. There is no red-haired emoji. You can choose from blonde hair or brown or black — and that’s it. Rumour has it that this unacceptable situation will be rectified later in 2018. Until then, I will remain an unrepresented minority, prevented from fully expressing myself unless disguised as someone I am not.