In 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was not actually a word but rather an emoji. The “tears of joy” one to be specific.
A few years ago it would have seemed absurd to give such an honour to a cartoon smiley face but the fact that emojis have become so phenomenally popular in such a short amount of time might have something to do with it. According to a study by SwiftKey (a predictive keyboard and typing app), people used emojis three times as much in 2015 than the previous year. But where do these cutesy characters come from?
Using pictures to convey a message has been around for hundreds of years in the form of rock paintings. The pictures used in these are called pictograms or pictographs. These were meant to be a literal representation of actual things found in the world (like the sun). As cultures developed so did this type of communication. Logograms and ideograms came into play. Logograms are images or characters meant to stand in for a word (for example, an “x” standing in for multiply in mathematics) and ideograms are symbols that represent an abstract idea (like no-smoking signs or traffic signs).
As online communication became more prevalent, it was inevitable that icons would come into use in the same way as ideograms and pictograms did back in the day. This is where emoticons, the forefather of emojis, come into play. Emoticons (a combination of the words “emote” and icon”) are the use of punctuation marks, numbers and letters to express a certain mood or feeling. Something like : – ) is an example of an emoticon and expresses happiness or the action of smiling. It would surprise many to learn that emoticons were used in Morse code and print as far back as the 1800s. If you were to send out the number “73” (later changed to “88”), you were sending the recipient “love and kisses”. Around the same time print magazines started publishing their own versions of emoticons and their interpretations, but no set form had been established. In 1982 Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist, was the first to use the smiley and sad face emoticons we know today. After that it spread online to ARPANET and Usenet.
Around 1986 Japan developed a version of emoticons that could be read without the need to tilt one’s head to the left (which one has to do with older versions of emoticons mentioned above). These were called kaomojis. Kaomoji is a Japanese word merging “kao” (expression, look or face) with “moji” (character). Examples of kaomojis would be (-_-) and (^.^). These were widely used on ASCII Net. As English-language anime (a form of Japanese animation) forums emerged, they adopted the use of kaomojis. This then gave it an opportunity to spread to other areas like online gaming and instant messaging to reach a more global audience.
The first emojis ever created were by Shigetaka Kurita while he was working on a mobile Internet platform for a Japanese mobile operator. The idea was to use these images to appeal to a teenage market. He took inspiration from symbols used in weather forecasts, Chinese characters and street signs, as well as the stock symbols used in manga to express emotions (like a lightbulb symbolising an idea). He ultimately created about 180 emoji based expressions he’s seen people make daily and objects he’d seen within the city.
Emojis were widely used on Japanese mobile phones since the late 1990s but only became popular in the Western world when they were included on OS X Lion of Apple’s iPhone in 2011. It was then adopted by Android and other operating systems shortly after.
Since emojis originated in Japan it should come as no surprise that many of the emojis we use today are actually rooted in Asian tradition and have different meanings than we might think they have:
Pile of poo emoji – for most of us the meaning might seem self-explanatory but according to Japanese culture it is actually a lucky symbol. The Japanese word for poop is “unko”. Unko starts with a similar “oon” sound than that of another, unrelated word meaning “luck”. Because of the Japanese people’s love of wordplay, they equate the symbol for poop with something being fortuitous and they even sell Golden Poo charms.
Person with folded hands emoji – many Westerners might see this emoji as being someone praying. There were even rays of light shining behind the hands up until a recent update. However, in Japanese culture it expresses the bowing movement they make when expressing either gratitude (especially for a meal) or apologising.
Many emojis are representative of traditional Japanese dishes like the emoji with Oden Emojia pink swirl design emoji that actually shows a Narutomaki which is a type of fish cake. The emoji that looks like a kebab to Westerners, actually represents an oden, a traditional Japanese winter stew.
Squared NG emoji – the letters actually stand for “No Good”. It comes from its frequent use on Japanese game shows when the player does something wrong or when they’re showing bloopers.
Despite the above having different meanings in different cultures, emojis have become something that can be universally understood and help people communicate across language barriers. Ever since the addition of four extra skin tones to choose from in 2015 (at last!), it has become an even more relatable medium for people from all around the world. It has been shown in recent studies that the types of emojis you use are influenced by nationality or cultural background. For example, Brazilians use more than double the amount of religious-themed emojis like the prayer hands and church. The Russians are the most romantic with their favourites being the kiss mark, couple kissing and love letter emojis. And, surprisingly enough, Canadians were found to use the most violent types of emojis like the knife, gun, punching fist and explosion.
It has also been found that emojis are just as popular amongst people over the age of 35 as it is with teeny-boppers (that’s old person speak for teenager). Many people have commented about how their parents actually use it way more than they do. There are many reasons for this including that it is easy to use and a clear way to get a point across without needing to explain yourself too much with text. It can even be a way of helping parents that are not used to being emotional with their children to show their love.
No matter if you think emojis are a lazy way of communicating or simply a fun way to add to a conversation, they are definitely here to stay. They are after all descended from ancient ways of storytelling. And as long as the Internet and instant messaging exists, so will the need to use images as a means to communicate with others.