Is an Emoji a Word?

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The Oxford English Dictionary has rocked the English-speaking, word-loving world by proclaiming an emoji the OED “word of the year.”

The emoji “face with tears of joy” has been declared the most popular “word” of 2015.

I can see that this symbol might deserve the title “emoji of the year” or “universal symbol of the year” or even “cartoon of the year.” But word?

In a video, Casper Grothwahl, the extremely young-looking President of Oxford’s Dictionaries Division, justifies the selection of this particular emoji as a word. He cites its importance in teen texting culture “before we saw it explode into the mainstream.” He points to the fact that, thanks to an input technology for iOS devices called SwiftKey, any keyboard symbol can now be tracked and analyzed for frequency.

As justification for naming this universal symbol as “word of the year,” Grothwahl refers to the OED’s century-long tradition of “tracking the English language” around the globe and “monitoring how language is being used.”

He declares that because the twenty-first century culture is “visually driven and emotionally expressive,” pictograms “add a deeper subtlety and richness” to traditional language.

I demur.

The Oxford English Dictionary, as stated on its own site, is “widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world.”

Keywords: English language, English-speaking world.

Pictograms are not words. They cannot be pronounced. They can be described with English words: “face with tears of joy.”

The OED tells me that a word is “any of the sequences of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognized by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech used in forming a sentence or utterance in a language (and in most writing systems normally separated by spaces); a lexical unit other than a phrase or affix; an item of vocabulary, a vocable.”

Figurative uses are, of course, possible. For example mathematicians use word to denote “a sequence of symbols in a particular context.” In computing, a word is “a consecutive string of bits that can be transferred and stored as a unit.” But even in such figurative uses, word remains a word that may be spoken and written.

In sum, words are spoken utterances that in English are represented in writing by letter combinations. The pictographs called emoji are a cultural phenomenon that merits study, but they are not English words.

Related post: Emoji

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12 thoughts on “Is an Emoji a Word?”

  1. Most dictionary definitions of “word” define it as a spoken or written element. The OED definition you cited does too, although less explicitly. Not being pronounceable doesn’t disqualify it, provided it carries meaning.

    Emoji are not bound to any language. That makes them unique, although it also doesn’t disqualify them. Their meaning can be given, and the meanings are not the same as the descriptions. An emoji of a smile and heart can mean “I love you”. To carry meaning only requires that writes and readers generally understand the meaning.

    “Word” predates Guggenheim. It emerged in a world dominated by speech. Guggenheim changed that, but texting has changed it again. If you have children you know that the thing they do least on their phones is make phone calls. They communicate by text, which is not only ubiquitous but concise. Emoji have a large role to play in that.

    I think the OED is doing more than arguing emoji are words. They are also expanding the meaning of “word” for our times, and I think they’re right.

  2. At first I disagreed with you, Maeve. After all, to not count words with a pictorial base would mean Chinese writing doesn’t consist of words. And sign language would raise issues. But I think drawing the line at defining a word as something pronounceable is a good idea. If we have the word (!) “emoji,” let’s just call them that.

  3. The word “emoji” has a pronunciation and an etymology, has been around in English usage since the late ’90s, and is in common usage to describe all kinds of social media symbols. I agree with the OED, which I visited in 2013, when I took a course, The History of the English Language, at Christchurch with Oxford lexicographer Julia Cresswell.
    I went to the source, the online OED. Here’s its entry for the word “emoji,” copied and pasted below.
    emoji, n.
    Brit. /ᵻˈməʊdʒi/ , U.S. /ᵻˈmoʊdʒi/
    Inflections: Plural emoji, emojis.
    Etymology: < Japanese emoji pictograph (1928 or earlier, perhaps after English pictograph)
    A small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communications.

  4. Terri,
    In this post I’m contending that “an emoji,” like “smiley-face-with-tears-of-joy” is not an English word.

    I acknowledge that “emoji” is a word. I’ve written about the word here:

  5. This emoji doesn’t have a name? Or a label? That would really put the question to rest and seems like a pretty obvious hole in the whole thing. As for OED, I’m not surprised or even disappointed. Institutions that were supposed to be guardians of culture abandoned that post decades ago for reasons that Allan Bloom probably identified well. Today such entities are much more likely to be the Urheimat of barbarism than to be the walls of Rome. They have become nearly the polar opposite of what they were intended to be and nothing has really taken their place. Hence, e.g., “descriptive” linguistics.

  6. At first I wholeheartedly agreed with Maeve, then found Mark Matchen was persuading me otherwise. I think Mark has a point, that the definition of ‘word’ is expanding. I’m thinking of sign language, where none of the language items can be pronounced (translated yes, pronounced no) but are still words.

    However I’m back with Maeve. An emoji is really pushing the concept of word too far. We’ve had signs and pictorial information (the no-smoking sign, the wheelchair-access toilet sign, road signs, flight safety instructions to name a very few) for far longer than emojis have been around and have never thought to expand the meaning of ‘word’ to accommodate them. Not to mention non-SL hand signs such as thumbs up, middle finger etc etc etc. So why emoji? Especially when what they represent often aren’t really words anyway but sentences.

    Emoji are pictures that accentuate, support, or emphasise words. By themselves they express too much, too little, or too amiguously to be counted as words.

  7. The difference seems to be a word vs a symbol. A word is a symbol, at least in the larger context of things, but not all symbols are words. The Smiley Face, the peace sign, the little R for registered trademark, the little stick people are restroom doors are all symbols and as such they have meanings. But just being a symbol with a meaning does not make something a word. “Little triangle woman shape” means ladies’ room. “Little triangle woman shape” is not a word. What’s kind of sad is that this distinction is obvious and simple. Yet this Casper guy seems oblivious to it. And he is the chief of the mess.

  8. At least one of the comments above mentioned Chinese characters. My husband has studied a little Japanese from time to time. The difference from character-based languages and the nameless, soundless emojis (that seem to mean whatever one wants them to mean) is that characters have sounds and/or names. I imagine even ancient pictograph/hieroglyph languages were more similar to character-based languages than to emojis.

    Perhaps Caspar should have consulted Prince. He knows a little something about trying using an unpronouncible symbol as a word. It didn’t work for him either 22 years ago.

  9. Short answer- no. That’s silly. Worse yet, it’s illogical.

    On the other hand, i would argue that a word does not need a written form. /hat tip to non-transcribed language, e.g., some indigenous languages.

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