A brief history of the Emoji

If you’re an inhabitant of the digital world of the 21st century, chances are you are probably familiar with these. These pictographic images have revolutionised the way that we communicate, but what are they, and what’s the story behind them?

Human beings have a rich history of using pictograms for communication, from prehistoric cave paintings to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, to the 21st century. Emoji, the most recent example incarnation of this traditional form of communication, had its roots in the 1990s. With the advent of SMS and email communications technology, the emoticon was born a portmanteau word of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’ emoticons were basic keystrokes that when read sideways became, well… an icon to express an emotion! : )

However, Japanese software developers took this one step further in 1997, when these fairly simple keystroke-based icons were replaced by true pictographic images, and the emoji was born. Interestingly, the word ‘emoji’ is a purely Japanese word, coming from ‘e’ the Japanese for ‘picture’ and ‘moji’ or ‘character’ – the resemblance to the English word ‘emotion’ is purely incidental, although it must have been a fortunate coincidence!

According to emojipedia, there are now over 2666 emoji on multiple operating systems, and the list is growing all the time. By 2019, the existing set of emoji had expanded to reflect a greater degree of diversity, and changes were made to reflect social issues – for example, emoji representing ‘gun’ was changed to a cartoon weapon to reflect the growing concern over gun violence.

Are they changing the way we communicate?

Yes! In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary named the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji as the ‘word of the year’. In fact, with the sheer range of emoji available, It is even possible to have an entire conversation using nothing else. Whether this is making us better, more accurate communicators, or less skilled users of English is up for debate, but there is no doubt that the way we interact with each other has changed as a result of the humble emoji.

However, what is even more interesting is how they are meant and how they are interpreted really depends on who is doing the sending and receiving! Interpretation of meaning is highly culturally specific, and this is no different for these pictograms. For instance, whilst a simple smiley face in the English-speaking world means ‘happy,’ a Chinese recipient is more likely to interpret this as mocking or even contemptuous!

Similarly, what device or operating system we are using also plays a role in how meaning is constructed, for instance in April 2020, British writer and activist Jameela Jamil posted a tweet using the ‘hand over mouth’ emoji to comment upon food shopping during the COVID19 crisis. Whist on Apple’s iOS, this could be perceived as a neutral, thoughtful expression, other operating systems display it as a giggling face – leading to accusations of mocking those less well off.

What is world emoji day?

So as we have established, emoji are fascinating! But what is world emoji day? And why is it celebrated on the 17th of July? On early Apple devices, for whatever reason, the 17th of July was chosen as the default date displayed on the iCal calendar app, so what better date to celebrate!

In 2014, founder of the online ‘Emojipedia’ Jeremy Burge established the first ‘world emoji day’ as an informal celebration of all things emoji. Since then, it has been marked with a wide array of events. This has included the London Opera House presenting twenty classic operas and ballets in emoji form, New York’s Empire State Building is lit up in ‘emoji yellow’ and even a Guinness World Record attempt held in Dubai in 2017 for ‘the most people dressed up as an emoji’.

As a result of all the attention, even the biggest tech companies have used world emoji day to announce expansions to their range.

So, how do we feel about emoji? As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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