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noun [countable]

a small digital image, usually generated by software or built into a keypad, which is used in electronic communication to express emotion or other simple concepts

'Now, instead of actually typing words like "pizza" or "hamburger" in the search box when you want to find a restaurant, all you have to do is type an emoji.'

Houston Press 21st April 2014

Want to send your friend a last-minute birthday greeting? You could drop them a quick text message, though that might seem a little unexciting. Instead, how about a teeny little picture of a cake complete with candles? Aww, cute! In a blink of an eye, you've hopefully brought a smile to their face, and all courtesy of the emoji, the elaborate cousin of the emoticon which is becoming an increasingly popular embellishment in electronic communication.

building on the age-old philosophy that pictures speak louder than words, emoji are the latest take on how non-verbal communication can be simulated in an electronic environment

Emoticons have been around for many years now, those creative combinations of punctuation marks that we slap into an informal email or text message to suggest how we feel about a situation. But like all things electronic, the humble emoticon is beginning to play second fiddle to a more sophisticated counterpart. The emoji is a colourful, appealing and clearly recognizable mini-image representing a simple concept or emotion, and unlike an emoticon, you don't need to tip your head on one side to make sense of it. Some basic examples can be seen here.

Building on the age-old philosophy that pictures speak louder than words, emoji are the latest take on how non-verbal communication, notably hand and facial gestures, can be simulated in an electronic environment. But they take things one step further too, representing other familiar and everyday concepts through pictures rather than words. Our desire for speed, minimizing keypad strokes and other technical constraints, such as character limits, mean that this kind of shorthand is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Apple's latest iPhone software, for example, has an installed library of emoji forming a pictorial alphabet, which can be turned on instead of a regular keyboard, making it very easy to tap out a 'visual' message.

For a taste of emoji in action, check out this link which is shorthand for a very famous piece of text in English literature – can you recognize the original author?

Background – emoji

The word emoji (and the concept it represents) is Japanese in origin, formulated by combining the words e ('picture') and moji ('character'). The word's adoption into English has possibly been helped by the handy fact that it begins with emo, therefore graphically resembling its precursor the emoticon.

Emoji first appeared in Japan in the late 90s, and were standardized and built into phone handsets. Some were and continue to be culturally-specific, such as a bowing (apologizing) businessman, or Japanese cuisine like noodles and sushi.

Emoji have made such an impact on popular culture that related derivations are popping up too, such as the verb emojify and noun emojification to refer to the process of substituting conventional text with emoji.

Emoji can in some senses be considered a 21st century spin on the established concept of the pictograph or ideogram, a sign or symbol standing for a group of words which has its roots in the very earliest writing systems and is still observed in languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

An entry for emoji was a recent addition to the Macmillan Dictionary Online, along with a selection of other contemporary loanwords such as a bento (Japanese packed lunch), tagine (a Moroccan stew or related cooking pot) and caxirola (a football rattle based on a Brazilian instrument).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord article. Tech crèche.

This article was first published on 19th August 2014.


Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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