A2 by 12 pixel digital image speaks more eloquently of our times and its usage has grown faster than that of the competition: The emoji that weeps for joy. Of course, the competition is of unimpressive stature. In alphabetical order, it begins with “ad blocker”, which was retro in the last decade, and runs through “Brexit”, which a certain island nation has threatened practically from the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, and ends with “they”, the de-genderised reference to third persons that is half as old as feminism. Oxford has charts and graphs to prove that the world’s happiest emoji is moving faster than that shambolic lot.
But when an image 144 pixels deep is the word of the year, it does something drastic to the schoolroom notion that the word is a string of alphabets with no intervening spaces. Linguistically, the word is understood to be the smallest standalone unit of meaning. But brevity does not necessarily correlate with simplicity. The shortest words in the English language are “a” and “I”. The first baldly denotes a number, one, but the latter expresses the vastly complex idea of identity.
Emojis concentrate complexity. Ambivalent emojis combine joy and embarrassment. Neutral emojis convey the most sophisticated emotion: Unemotion. And the rare but famous nail-polish emoji conveys an elevated state of sophistication. How far it’s come from the simple smiley, a device to convey body language in emails which, being flat, uninflected text, were misread. and harmless communications set off flame wars. Then came ASCII art like the cow that drank Jolt, and when NTT Docomo rolled out mobile internet, Japan was ready for emojis. With the Unicode standard, the world was ready for Japan. But for that chain of events, the world’s communications would have been as flat as stale Jolt.