Emojis are everywhere: scattered throughout text messages, on social media sites, in dictionaries — even in museums. And now, with the release of “The Emoji Movie” this weekend, they’ve invaded movie theaters, too.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, emojis are an almost inescapable part of 21st-century life.
There’s more to those little faces and pictograms than one might think, though. In fact, they could be changing the way language works.
With that in mind, here are a few interesting facts you probably didn’t know about emojis:
- Emojis were created in 1999 by a then-27-year-old Japanese designer named Shigetaka Kurita for the Japanese cellphone company NTT DoCoMo, according to The Guardian.
- Emojis and emoticons are not interchangeable: “Emoticon,” a portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon,” refers specifically to representations of human faces using nothing but keyboard characters, including letters, numbers and punctuation marks — for instance: :) and :-*. Emojis, on the other hand, are tiny images of everything from food to fireworks to faces.
- Despite any apparent similarity, the word “emoji” isn’t derived either from “emoticon” or “emotion.” Instead, it’s 100 percent Japanese, combining the words “picture”(e) and “character” (moji).
- Kurita’s original emojis consisted of 176 12-pixel by 12-pixel black-and-white characters that he and his team designed after big-name companies like Panasonic and Fujitsu scoffed at the idea.
- Kurita drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including Japanese weather forecasts, which used pictographs to indicate if a day would be cloudy or sunny, rainy or snowy, etc., as well as Kanji and even Japanese manga, in which artists frequently use specific images (like cat ears, for example) as shorthand to convey ideas or emotions.
- Apple was responsible for bringing emojis to the U.S. In an effort to break into the Japanese market, the original 2007 iPhone came pre-loaded with an emoji keyboard. On American phones, this function was initially hidden, but intrepid iPhone users eventually found a way to unlock it.
- In 2011, iOS 5 officially supported emojis, making them widely available for the first time. Android followed suit in 2013.
- Whether using an iMac, an iPhone, an Android or virtually any other device, emojis work across every major platform from every major software developer thanks to a nonprofit group called the Unicode Consortium and the Unicode Standard, which regulates how text, including scripts and symbols like emojis, are encoded and represented to make sure they're usable by everyone.
- There are more than 2,600 different emojis in the Unicode Standard, according to the online emoji dictionary, emojipedia.org.
- Just like in the real world, diversity has been a gradual process for emojis. In 2012, Apple introduced emojis showing gay and lesbian couples holding hands. In 2014, the first African-American emoji characters were introduced. In 2015, Apple made it possible to select among a range of skin tones for emojis depicting people. In 2016, male-only characters finally got female equivalents. And this year, Apple will add an emoji depicting a woman wearing a headscarf, according to the New York Post.
- Emojis and emoticons aren't quite as new as is sometimes thought, though. An 1881 issue of an American satirical magazine, Puck, published what it referred to as “typographical art,” depicting four "vertical emoticon" faces — joy, melancholy, indifference and astonishment, according to the Daily Mail.
- In 1887, Ambrose Bierce proposed the idea of a new punctuation mark to indicate that something was meant to be taken humorously: a sideways parenthesis, which he called a “snigger point."
- The first smiley face was recently discovered on a 4,000-year-old clay jug in Turkey.
- A historical newspaper specialist made news in 2009 when he claimed to have found a winking smiley face emoticon in a transcript of an 1862 Abraham Lincoln speech, according to the New York Times. Similarly, according to slate.com, the original copy of a 1648 poem by Robert Herrick titled “To Fortune” includes what an editor for the University of Chicago Press interpreted as the first known use of a smiley face emoticon in a line that read, “Tumble me down, and I will sit / Upon my ruins, (smiling yet :).” These are almost definitely not real examples of emoticons, though, as this kind of parentheses-ending punctuation was a semi-frequent occurrence beginning in the 17th century.
- There are an estimated 6 billion emojis sent every day by people around the world.
- Ninety-two percent of online consumers use emojis.
- The word “emoji” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, according to Time magazine.
- In 2015, the OED’s online version, Oxford Dictionaries, made history when its "word of the year" wasn’t a word at all but instead the emoji pictograph officially known as the “Face With Tears of Joy.” (Other contenders for the word of the year included actual words made out of letters like “lumbersexual,” “on fleek” and “they” used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.)
- According to Oxford University Press, the “Face With Tears of Joy” is the most-used emoji, accounting for roughly 20 percent of all emojis used in the U.S. and the U.K. The first runner-up is the “Face Throwing a Kiss” emoji (aka the “Winking Kissy Face with Little Heart”) at about 9 percent.
- Emoji usage varies by country in ways that could be revealing. According to a study published in ACM Digital Library, countries with a high degree of individualism (as measured by something called the Hofstede culture index) use more emojis indicating happiness. Similarly, in France, nine out of the top 10 most frequently used emojis include hearts.
- Individual emojis mean different things to different people, according to a study conducted by a research group out of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In fact, only about 4.5 percent of the emojis they examined had a “low variance in their sentiment interpretations.” In about 25 percent of cases, though, participants couldn’t even agree on whether the same rendering of a specific emoji was positive, negative or neutral. That problem gets even bigger when using emojis across multiple platforms like Android vs. iPhone.
- On top of that, emojis are quickly developing country- and region-specific dialects as the “universal” symbols develop new associations that don’t always cross borders.
- Emojis can have legal consequences. Last year, according to the Telegraph, a 22-year-old Frenchman was sentenced to three months in jail for sending his girlfriend a pistol emoji, which she (and the French court) interpreted as a death threat.
- Scott Fahlman, who is generally credited with inventing emoticons in 1982, hates emojis. He told the Independent, “I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters. But perhaps that’s just because I invented the other kind.”
Jeff Peterson studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.