Embrace the Emoji. And Then Kiss It.

Oxford Dictionary declared emoji the word of the year and then went even further by researching the most used emoji in 2015. Of course, the choice doesn’t sit well with some purists–emoji isn’t a word per se, it’s a pictograph.1 For some, It’s yet another sign of language’s degradation and the end of good, clear thinking.

I started using emoji in my text messages a couple weeks ago; I’m late to the party, but not because I resisted emojis in the name of English conventions. Actually, I had thought about using emoji for awhile; I just didn’t know how to use them on my phone, and I wasn’t inspired enough to find out how until I noticed everyone I texted used them.

I like emoji myself and I’m pleased with it being the “word” of the year. It’s another arrow in my quiver for arguing that words are limited in expressing what we mean; the argument is based on observation of how people communicate (which is exactly how emoji became word of the year). We’ve been using different ways to communicate for centuries, all of the choices laid about before us all at once. Yet there’s an impulse to decide. Pick something and stick to it. For a long time that thing was the alphabetic text. The Word pushed everything out, I think, around the 19th century when Western civilization went wild for universal literacy–words and papers suddenly drove the economy, morality, social order, financial stability and mobility, and hegemony. But now the image, the sound, the gesture are returning, impeding on the space words held on to for so long. Of course some of us are a bit uncomfortable with the proliferation of non-word things.

Despite emojis’ popularity, it’s not something we use without thought. Pragmatics and rhetoric are concepts that govern our communicative choices. We really do think about when to use an emoji and what emoji to use, and that should be comforting for anyone rolling their eyes at the emoji, I think. For example, i find that emojis are housed in a very specific digital space and may not necessarily emerge in other, what we might consider official spaces (the essay, the memo, the resume and cover letter). Still, we have to wonder how pictographs contain a specific rhetorical effect and thus can be used across contexts (for demonstration, for irony, to prove a point). We can’t assume that no one has no idea how to use language or assume that communication needs to remain fixed or that our definition of language must remain fixed. Life is mutable and we have to constantly negotiate and renegotiate established ways of communicating with new ways of communicating. The interesting thing is that we don’t need an official institution to do that. We just need to watch how people build the contexts and the rules naturally over time.

Words aren’t going anywhere; they’re just making room for the other little things we like to use to share our thoughts.

  1. I wonder if Oxford Dictionary would open its pages to pictographs, even though they aren’t necessarily English in nature. They would have, I’m guessing, a separate section to acknowledge the communicative practices of we use alongside words via digital technology. What would dictionaries look like in the future?

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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