The Emoji Explosion: Do we understand each other any better?

To emoji or not to emoji? Just asking the question tags me as — without apology — old.

“When I encounter someone who doesn’t use emojis, I immediately sense they are either significantly older than me, or it is work and I have to be extremely professional,” says a Gen-X public relations specialist in an online article about the meaning of emojis. (Never mind that she hasn’t mastered personal pronouns. She has emojis.)

I confess to both her accusations: I’m “significantly older” and, I hope, professional. Having earned my living for decades by stringing words together, I’ve long considered emojis to be interlopers. The English language already has more words than any other — an estimated 170,000 in current use. For most of us, our working vocabulary is a tiny percentage of available words — around twenty thousand, or up to thirty-five thousand for the most erudite. 

From Chaucer to Shakespeare (the latter required only about thirty thousand words), through the centuries, writers and poets have painted glorious images with mere words. Why throw emojis into the mix? Just imagine “To be or not to be …” followed by a frowning, quizzical orb. 

My resistance began with emojis’ predecessors: emoticons — rearranged punctuation marks. I figured if I couldn’t make it clear that I was being humorous, contorted punctuation wasn’t going to help. Kinda like having to explain a joke. : )

Emojis supposedly save time and add feeling. With just one or two you quickly express a panoply of, well, emotion. Nearly a quarter of all global Tweets contain at least one emoji. Nine hundred million are sent daily on Facebook Messenger — with no accompanying text! The Oxford English Dictionary chose the emoji “Face With Tears of Joy” as the word of the year for 2015. That one alone has been used more than two billion times.

Emoji use exploded (the emoji for “exploded” is a brilliant red-orange-yellow starburst) after they became universally available in 2010. Initially, engineers proposed 625 emojis to Unicode, the international consortium that sets standards for computer languages. As of last year, 3,633 emojis were approved with more to come all the time: most recently a pregnant man! (An exclamation point suffices. I really don’t want to see a pregnant man.)

What’s it say to you?

Because of their universal use, emojis might give us a clue as to how humanity is feeling. Last March, “Loudly Crying,” outpaced “Tears of Joy” as the No. 1 emoji used globally. Makes sense amidst the pandemic, but here’s the problem. There isn’t universal agreement on the meaning of emojis. The loudly crying face “may convey inconsolable grief but also other intense feelings, such as uncontrollable laughter, pride or overwhelming joy,” says Emojipedia.

Emoji interpretations vary widely between generations. A millennial who texts “Sorry I’m late” and gets a smiley response will feel forgiven. Gen-X is more nuanced, ironic. That same smile is understood as snarky, not at all forgiving. 

I can only suggest what I’ve heard young parents advise their language-learning tots: “Use your words.”