Category Archives: Emoticons

The emoji you never use

Apple seems to love emoji, the Japanese emoticon library, and they’ve played a considerable role in popularizing them outside Japan. I’d like to explore the history and development of emoji in Japan and their spread to the West, but that is quite an undertaking. For now, let’s consider one small aspect of emoji: the weird ones.

We all intuitively “get” what the facial emoji are trying to convey. Just take a look:


Okay, I admit I’m not quite sure when that face mask one would come in handy, but for the most part each of these is pretty clear. But emoji go well beyond little faces: As aficionados know well, there’s a cactus, some leaves, a Hokusai print, a little pile of poop, a dinosaur… Though they’re ambiguous, many of us have found uses for them (sometimes, in fact, because they’re ambiguous).

But there are some emoji we (probably) never, ever use: the ones that just show a Japanese character. For example, you can see some of them here:


For English speakers, these icons have even less communicational utility than a picture of a VHS tape. For Japanese speakers, on the other hand, they do convey something concrete. But when, why and how could they be used? What is the value of using the emoji over just typing the character?

I posed the question to Koichi, creator of a number of innovative Japanese learning tools and arbiter of Japanese culture. It turns out that these icons are handy shortcuts—ways to convey in a single icon what would normally take a few characters. Consider the 申 emoji, for example. Japanese speakers understand it as a shortened form of 申し込み, which means “apply” or “register.” And 祝 is a shorter way to say お祝い, which means “congratulations.” Thus, when under the restraints of time or character limits, or simply to add a bit of style to a message, these emoji can be employed.

Still, they don’t seem to be used that widely. If we take a look at Emoji Tracker, a real-time tracker of emoji use on Twitter, which displays the emoji in order of popularity, we see that the emoji showing Japanese characters fall squarely at the end of the list.

Are emoticons just texty facial expressions, or is there more to it?

Some people love emoticons, and some people hate them. Some use them gratuitously, and some consciously avoid them. I think everyone knows what [emoji smiling face with smiling eyes]  means—at least superficially—even if they’ve never seen it before, but what about something like :-#? I find emoticons endlessly fascinating, and I am going to devote a number of posts to them. This is the first.

Alright, so, emoticons. Let’s start at the beginning: Why do they exist in the first place? It seems obvious enough that they were created to inject some emotion and personality into a medium (the written word) that otherwise lacks things like facial expression and emotion. As such, they allow us to clarify our meaning a bit, at least when we’re not writing in formal situations.

At first blush, it may seem that emoticons are meant to replace the missing element of facial expression, and that’s it. After all, that’s exactly what they look like. But that’s not quite the case. Consider some differences:

  • Emoticons aren’t persistent with text as facial expressions are with speech. They’re only inserted from time to time.
  • Emoticons are always (almost always?) deliberate, but facial expressions may not be.
  • Compared to the immense variety and nuance we can communicate via facial expressions, emoticons are rather crude.

So what’s the deal? Upon reflection, it seems that emoticons are very different from our facial expressions, although they share some prima facie resemblances.

So what’s going on here? Walther & d’Addario (2001) drew the conclusion that emoticons are voluntary symbols, rather than spontaneous shows of emotion. This was corroborated by Garrison et al. (2011), who suggested that the placement of emoticons within an utterance may have rhetorical significance. Most recently, Jibral & Abdullah (2013) asserted that emoticons are morpheme-like elements that can be derived and inflected, and that they can be thought of as lexical items rather than non-verbal compensations.

Now that is really interesting. Could it be that emoticons are actually words? Good luck pronouncing [emoji hushed face] .