The Oxford English Dictionary has named the tears of joy emoji as word of the year. But are these little pictures really worth a thousand words, Ian Vella asks.

A few years ago, the telephone was the tool of choice for long-distance communication. It got the message through loud and clear and managed to convey our emotions quite well – if someone sounded angry, chances were that they were actually angry.

Texting does not require as much socio-emotional context as verbal communication and therefore caught on quickly. However electronic and typed messages, such as e-mails or SMS, remain somewhat impersonal and do not portray the sender’s feelings in the communication itself. In fact texting makes it difficult at times to understand whether someone is being sarcastic, joking or expressing any emotion at all.

Computer scientist Scott Fahlman is credited with the invention of emoticons. In September 1982 he first proposed the use of the-) and-( combinations, which today are both immediately recognisable as the happy and frowny face when viewed horizontally. At the time, Fahlman felt the need to issue a circular to his fellow university message board users who most of the time did not recognise the spirit in which a particular communication was sent.

Emoticons started evolving into emojis in 1997 when Japanese mobile operators started including one-character emoticons which depicted facial expressions and emotional situations, common objects, places, types of weather and animals. The Japanese also gave them their name. Contrary to popular belief, the word ‘emoji’ does not have anything to do with ‘emotion’. Rather, the word is a combination of ‘e’ and ‘moji’, which in Japanese mean ‘picture’ and ‘character’ respectively.

Yet there were some issues. The main one was that you had to send a particular emoji to someone who had the exact same type of mobile phone – otherwise, a garbled SMS would be displayed. Also, the original emojis were black and white on 12x12 pixel characters.

Today, emojis are designed in high definition, some even in 3D, and with hundreds of scaled colours. Also, since 2010, most emoji character sets have been incorporated into Unicode, an internationally recognised standard system for indexing characters. This has allowed them to be used outside Japan and to be compatible across different operating systems.

In the US, the most popular emojis are those relating to guns and pizza, while Europeans mostly use emojis to express anger or fear

Software designers faced pressures from different cultures to include emojis related to particular customs. A new study, based on data collected through the Swiftkey app, looks at the use of emojis around the world. This study, which analysed more than a billion pieces of emoji data, had some surprising results. For instance, certain emojis related to food items such as the taco are predominantly used in Mexico. In the US, the most popular emojis are those relating to guns and pizza, while Europeans mostly use emojis to express anger or fear. The French use the heart emoji five times more than any other country. Arabic speakers love to share flowers and plant emojis, while Australians send the largest number of emojis related to booze and drugs. In Japan, females always use at least one emoji in each SMS or e-mail they send. They even use emojis in official work-related communication and on printed letters.

According to the same survey, one common aspect observable throughout this world is that women are twice more likely to use an emoji compared to men and most men only use an emoji when replying to a message which already included one. So it seems that men do play along in the emoji game but in reality don’t give them much importance. Most men only use the laughing icon and rarely use any other emoji. Predictably, youngsters, especially teenagers are 10 times more likely to use an emoji than their older people.

Although the main aim of emojis is to convey a message or emotion and eliminating any double meaning or confusion, some people attribute different meanings to even the most commonly used emojis. For instance, an emoji showing two hands together might mean a high five for some people, while originally it was designed to indicate that someone is praying. The face with a cold sweat emoji is used by people as if the sweat is a tear and incorrectly use it to signify that they are crying. However, this emoji was originally meant to convey a stressful situation and not to portray sadness. The sleepy face emoji is also mostly used to symbolise someone who is sobbing when in reality it’s supposed to be used in situations where the user is too tired and needs to sleep.

The Oxford English Dictionary has recently announced that its word of the year for 2015 isn’t actually a word – it’s the tears of joy emoji. This particular emoji was chosen because it was used in 20 per cent of all emojis sent in the UK. Incidentally, the Oxford press also says that the word ‘emoji’ itself more than tripled in usage for 2015 over the past year.

We can only expect emojis to become more popular. In fact, last October, Apple released a new update for iOS 9, which packed over 150 new emojis, including a burrito and a unicorn. Officially there are more than 700 emojis and there may be way more if we consider the country specific emojis. That means that choosing the right emoji can slow you down when typing a message. However, it probably makes your message more interesting.

• Ian Vella blogs on

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