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Strictly speaking | Emoji

It’s the time of year when people start creating ‘Best of 2015’ lists and dictionaries put out their ‘Word of the Year’. The Oxford Dictionaries’ choice has caused something of a furore, as it isn’t actually a word. It’s an emoji – a type of pictograph used in electronic communication to depict an idea or an emotion – specifically the icon known as ‘face with tears of joy’ (pictured). Emojis serve a similar function to emoticons, but are stylised images rather than representations of facial expressions created with keyboard strokes, as in the well-known smiley face ‘:)’. The words look related, too, but they aren’t. Emoticon is formed in English (from emotion + icon), while emoji is a Japanese word (from e ‘picture’ + moji ‘letter, character’). The public backlash against Oxford’s choice stems from the belief that dictionaries should deal exclusively in words. A typical response comes from nymag.com, claiming that the venerable institution is like a “tragically out-of-touch old person … clinging to every gimmick it can to prove it’s still relevant”. Staying relevant is exactly what dictionaries try to do in reflecting how the way we communicate changes, and the Oxford Dictionaries blog provides data to show how much the use of this emoji has risen in the last year. The electronic medium presents a need for something to take the place of facial expressions. It remains to be seen how alphabet-ruled English dictionaries will evolve to accommodate the rich palette of meanings that emojis can convey.

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