Google search: the year of the emoji – what constitutes a word?

There’s been a hubbub of chatter about the new word of the year this year, which isn’t actually a word: it’s an emoji (the tears of laughter, or equivalent, emoji to be precise).

When I heard about this, it didn’t really strike me as surprising, and I didn’t give it much thought until one of my classmates mentioned how it was appalling to her that the word of the year wasn’t actually a word.

“It takes away the beauty of the language,” she said. I wasn’t sure where my opinion fell in regards to this matter and I felt that I should’ve had one seeing as I’m a sociolinguistics student.

Here are 2 definitions of the word “word”; one lexical,

a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.

and one linguistic:

the smallest element that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content (with literal or practical meaning)

Initially, I didn’t have a problem with the emoji being the word of the year because of this tweet by @DanMentos:

In this tweet, 💯 is syntactically integrated (quite beautifully) into the adjective position. It’s more common (as of right now) to see emojis at the beginning or end of a sentence, or as the full reply itself.

Furthermore, 💯 is a linguistically symbolic representation. We don’t use this interchangeably with “100” or “one hundred” either, meaning that there is a specific context in which 💯 fits. It has a deeper pragmatic meaning, often meaning something along the lines of “cool” or “amazing” (like a 100 on a midterm – truly amazing indeed).

This also works in regards to the fire emoji (🔥). We don’t usually see 🔥 being used in contexts that relate to tangible fire or flames, but rather, we see it used in contexts where something is amazing or worthy of praise, such as my 🔥 mixtape.

However, even aside from the syntactic/semantic/pragmatic functionality of emojis, we don’t see sentences made up completely of emojis, and they do not represent one single word. In this sense, there is a more complex system behind the use of emojis that simultaneously cannot serve to function as pure language or writing.

Emojis are ideograms, which derive from pictograms. Ideograms embody things in our world that are not necessarily directly observable (i.e. 💯 can represent something good, something worthy of praise, “cool”-ness, etc.) and is more arbitrary than some of its other emoji counterparts (ex. 🍒, or 😘). It also cannot stand in place of another word. For example, we wouldn’t be able to say “This song is 💯” without questioning what 💯 really means since it was many pragmatic derivatives/alternatives. On the other hand, we are able to say “Meet me @ 1” where both “@” and “1” stand in place of actual words, and their meanings never change. You could easily rewrite that last sentence as “Meet me at one” and it would mean the same thing.

Now, onto the tears of laughter emoji (😂). It’s clear that it’s probably a little more difficult to integrate this emoji into our sentences syntactically. Yet it still fulfills the criteria of being a word.

  1. I can send replies with that particular emoji as the only source of meaning.
    1. Person A: You’re a bitch.
    2. Person B: 😂
  2. If I were to use any random emoji in a mismatched context, the meaning of the sentence/utterance would not make sense; therefore, emojis do have some sort of contextual meaning and dependance.
    1. Person A: You’re a bitch.
    2. Person B: 🎅
    3. Person A: ???

However, we cannot speak in emojis, nor can we use them in settings other than casual (rather than business or academic). Should emojis ever take part as an integral unit of written language, our discourse could also be susceptible to us opting for emoji use rather than using specific words used to evoke emotion. Of course, this is all speculation seeing as in the above example with the 100 emoji, 💯 was used as an adjective AND managed to preserve the meaning of the sentences.

Furthermore, I think the same arguments can be applied to hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter. Most will probably argue that this isn’t a word, and most of that group will argue that it’s actually three words. But if we consider the phrase “black lives matter” in contrast with “#blacklivesmatter” we’re able to denote that there is a difference between the two.

As we know, “black lives matter” means, quite literally, that the lives of black people matter just as much as those that are white, or Asian, etc. But #blacklivesmatter, although it contains the words “black lives matter”, refers to a specific context – the Michael Brown incident in particular. It’s representative of a social movement and embodies the pinnacle of one of the largest pushes in my current time to change the society’s views of black individuals around the world. I argue that the hashtag holds just as much meaning as the individual phrase itself. The hashtag is contextually meaningful and dependant, and can be uttered on its own as a reply to someone in relation to a particular context.

What do you think? Is an emoji worthy of being the word of the year?

This was a lot of writing and thinking. Plopping my ass down in bed would be 💯 right about now.

Featured Image: Smiley by CreativeMagic is licensed under CC0.


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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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