‘You’re an idiot.’ On its own that sentence is an insult, but add an emoji and it can seem self-deprecatory, even affectionate. Emoji – just in case you’ve been in space for the last few years – are little pictures that you can add to text messages or emails to inflect what’s being said in words. There are 845 installed on the latest iPhones. The set includes sixty-odd ‘smileys’, not all of them smiley: round, lemon-yellow faces that express different emotions, from joy to grief to affection to terror. A new smiley, coming with the 2017 update, was inspired by Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey and portrays a sort of wrily amused disdain. You can express more emotions in emoji than some people can express with their actual real-life faces. Smileys aren’t the only humans either: there’s a 💃 (ay caramba!), a 👯 (best friends!) and a 💅 (me-time!). The inclusion of non-lemon-yellow humans necessitated the introduction by Apple, last April, of skin-tone variants: the flamenco dancer now comes in five different shades. But there’s much more to emoji than humans: there are animals, musical instruments, plants, astrological symbols, murder weapons, items of clothing, at least three different kinds of sunrise (over mountains, sea and skyscrapers) and a swirl of dogshit. ‘You’re an idiot 😃’ means ‘You’re an idiot (not really!)’ ‘You’re an idiot 👛’ means ‘You’re an idiot because you left your purse behind.’ ‘You’re an idiot 🎸’ means ‘I’m rocking out in my imagination to a song that has “You’re an idiot” as its chorus.’ ‘You’re an idiot 🤔’ means ‘You’re an idiot … or are you?’
Emoji don’t mean things in the same way as words mean things. The shit emoji for example, 💩, doesn’t mean shit in the same way that merde means shit: its meaning depends on what’s being said in the text, and to whom. It can be an illustration or a footnote, used straightforwardly as a pictogram – as in ‘I trod in 💩’ or ‘You stink of 💩’ – or more abstractly, as in ‘I broke your washing machine 💩’ (‘I am making your life harder for you, and revelling in it, thus I am a shit’). Emoji Dick is a crowd-sourced and crowd-funded ‘translation’ of Moby Dick into emoji, but it’s not really a translation at all, it’s more like a game of Dingbats. This is how it does ‘Call me Ishmael’: ☎👦⛵🐳👌. No, I don’t know what the hand is doing there either, and I don’t know why they used that whale and not this more formidable one: 🐋. Vyv Evans, who teaches linguistics at Bangor University, claimed in a paper last year that emoji is the ‘fastest growing form of language of all time’: 72 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds say they find it easier to express their emotions if they use emoji, he said. That’s not surprising, really: it’s far easier, and not just for teenagers, to say 😍than ‘I fancy you.’ But emoji is an odd ‘form of language’ because it’s parasitic on other languages and systems of implication and its usage can be wildly idiosyncratic. Different nations use emoji differently: Canadians use 💩 twice as much as the global average; Australians are more prolific than anyone else in their use of 🍺, 🍻 and 🍸. The games emoji users play often look like jokes at the expense of the emoji themselves, a case in point being the aubergine, 🍆, which is rarely used to mean aubergine.
Emoji didn’t become popular in the West until Apple installed them on the iPhone in 2011, but they first appeared in Japan in the 1990s. The word ‘emoji’, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have anything to do with emotion: it’s an amalgamation of the Japanese words for image, e, and character, moji. Emoji’s Japanese origins account for the existence both of a 🍢 (an oden, a Japanese winter stew; the emoji depicts the Shizuoka variation, in which the ingredients are skewered) and a 🍡 (a dango, a dessert of sweet, skewered dumplings). They also explain why there’s a 👺, a mask representing a tengu (a demon from Japanese folklore) that is used by Japanese people to express conceitedness, by Westerners to express disgruntlement, and by me to express self-conscious hauteur. A new book, The Story of Emoji by Gavin Lucas (Prestel, £14.99), traces the creation of emoji to an employee of the Japanese telecommunications company NTT Docomo. In the mid-1990s, Docomo produced the Pocket Bell, a pager which allowed users to attach a small ♥ to their messages; it became very popular with flirty high school kids. When the company invented i-mode, the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform, a young engineer called Shigetaka Kurita decided to extend the Pocket Bell’s vocabulary of images. He created a set of proto-emoji using a grid of 12 by 12 pixels. The Story of Emoji suggests that the popularity of Kurita’s creation had to do with the specific needs of the Japanese business community, which had been upset by the introduction of email in 1993. Traditionally, Japanese businessmen and women had sent one another long, verbose letters that were full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions and included a lot of contextual information: ‘The absence of all of these cues in emails and texts meant that the promise of digital communication … was being offset by an accompanying increase in miscommunication.’ Kurita’s characters helped the sararimen stop accidentally disrespecting each other.
There were precursors that allowed us to do some of what emoji do before Kurita came along. The Interrobang, ‽, a cross between an exclamation mark and a question mark, was invented by an American copywriter in 1962. (There was a competition to name it; ‘exclamaquest’, ‘quizding’ and ‘exclarotive’ were runners up.) More significantly, emoticons – icons for emoting made out of conventional typographic characters – have been used on the internet since at least the 1980s. In September 1982, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University proposed on an online message board that jokes could be marked :-) and non-jokes :-( . Hundreds of emoticons have appeared since then, the ‘winky face’ for example, ;-). One of the more complicated is the 11-character shrug, which is read vertically rather than sideways: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The most important proto-emoji, though, is the smiley itself, 🙂, which wasn’t invented by Forrest Gump as Hollywood would have you believe, but by a graphic designer called Harvey Ball in 1963 on the occasion of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts’s merger with the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio. Ball was hired to produce a cheery design for buttons and posters that could be distributed internally because company morale was low.
The State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts merged with the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio, and the world was shaken to its core. The smiley rebelled against corporate culture and became a hippy symbol, then the symbol of acid house. Now, 53 years on, emoji continue to advance the Age of Aquarius by making you twice as likely to have sex, according to a recent survey sponsored by the dating website match.com. The survey, which was conducted by Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers, found that 54 per cent of emoji-users had sex in 2014, compared with 31 per cent of emoji-shunners – stop wasting your time on those sonnets, in other words. Men most like to use 😍 and 😘 when chatting people up, according to the study, while women favour the more demure 😊 and 👄; when taking things to the next level, men like to deploy the aubergine, but women apparently prefer the banana, 🍌. Fisher echoed the sararimen in her explanation of what’s going on: emoji are a way of compensating for texts and emails’ inability to convey ‘subtle inflection of the voice’. A report published by Business Insider in March agreed, claiming that more and more businesses are including emoji in their press releases because it makes them seem more human. Emoji have become so popular as a means of expressing emotion that those who don’t use them are seen as emotionally illiterate. One company has started selling actual aubergines that you can have sent to an object of your affections with a sexy message written on them in permanent marker, for only £6.99 apiece. Aubergines are no longer merely aubergines.