Why Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji as its 'word' of the year

Oxford Dictionary named the 'Face with Tears of Joy' emoji as its 'word' of the year, making emoji critics and supporters alike question the role of texting images in modern language. 

Eugene Tanner/AP
These Hawaii fans hold their emoji character mask in celebration of Halloween before the start of an NCAA college football game between Air Force and Hawaii, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Honolulu.

For the first time ever, Oxford Dictionaries Word of the year is an emoji. The face-with-tears-of-joy emoji was chosen to represent “the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.”

Oxford University Press partnered with SwiftKey, a smartphone app that supports auto-correct features, and identified the laughing with tears emoji to be the most used globally, making up 20 percent of all emojis used in the UK and 17 percent of those in the US.

So why an emoji? Oxford Dictionaries Corpus sites a dramatic surge in emoji use for 2015, triple that of the year before.  

And this is hardly surprising when reading today’s studies – or simply your text messages. 

According to SwiftKey, 74 percent of Americans report using an emoji every single day. The social media site Instagram, with over 400 million users, reports half of all Instagram comments include at least one emoji

And in a 2015 study by Talk Talk Mobile, more than 80 percent of Brits between the ages of 18 and 65 use emojis to communicate regularly.

Lane Brown, a former editor with The Christian Science Monitor, swore off emojis for a month last year after she felt she over-utilized the images to communicate. Brown said she was tired of sounding “like a middle-school cheerleader” when checking in on a friend via text message.

Jonathan Jones, an art writer for The Guardian, says emojis’ similarity to Egyptians’ hieroglyphics signals a step back for human evolution. 

“The Greek alphabet was much more productive than all those lovely Egyptian pictures. That is why there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey,” he argues. “In other words, there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable.” 

But not all linguistic experts say our emoji obsession is a bad thing.

Emojis are usually used positively, suggesting a void in the written language. “The overall thing we noticed is that 70 percent of all emojis sent are positive and so that’s probably a good thing that we’re talking to each other positively and using emoji to enhance that,” Joe Braidwood, chief marketing officer for SwiftKey, told NPR.

Lauren Collister, a socio-linguist from the University of Pittsburgh, told Wisconsin Public Radio earlier this year that emojis act as “discourse markers,” conveying emotions that would otherwise be impossible in written language.

“Discourse markers are these little bits of language that convey the tone or the overlying meaning of what we’re saying,” explains Collister. “We usually do this in spoken language with our voice or tone. But when you have text only, that’s not really an option. So people started using emoticons as a way to give some emotion or inflection to their writing.”

Collister says emojis’ incorporation into written language, and the surrounding criticism, are actually natural. Language has constantly evolved as long as it’s existed, says Collister, recalling an angry 63 A.D. Roman professor who complained about his Latin students’ new way of speaking: a language that would later become French.

Before the rise of texting, Neil Postman, an acclaimed American media theorist and critic, predicted in 1985 that changes in communication methods will be simultaneous with changes in language.

This argument “fixes its attention on the forms of human conversation, and postulates that how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express,” Postman explains in his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

“And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.”

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