How to speak emoji

Confused by the smiley faces in your text messages? We take you through everything you need to know about emoji.

How to speak emoji

Whether you're a heavy user of emoji or a complete newbie, it's now almost impossible to escape the tiny pictures that are gradually popping up more and more in our texts, tweets and instant messages.

Even if you're determined to resist communicating using pictures and prefer sticking to good ol' fashioned sentences instead, you'll soon be left out in the cold if you don't know how to use emoji - so here's everything you need to know.

What are emoji?

Emoji originated in Japan and are tiny graphics that can be used alongside or even in place of words in text messages. Roughly translated, the word means ‘picture character’ in Japanese.

Variations of the ‘smiley face’ emoji can be used to express emotions, while a wide range of pictures are available for expressing concepts or ideas, including everthing from a Christmas tree to pictures of fruit, buildings, flags and musical instruments.

The range of different emoji symbols is huge
The range of different emoji symbols is huge

Emoji are one step on from the emoticon, which is where standard keyboard characters – mainly punctuation marks - are used to draw a facial expression. Many pieces of software now automatically convert certain emoticons directly into emoji, so :-) would become a graphic of a smiling face.

More and more services, like Facebook, are now building emoji into their messaging and there are even entire social networks springing up based entirely on emoji, such as Emojicate.

Why use emoji?

Many emoji are straightforward and easy to understand, especially the smiley/sad/angry face variety. But one of the things that make emoji so popular among children and teenagers is the fact that they’re not always so easily understood. This means that youngsters can come up with their codes for what certain symbols mean.

Not only can it be a fun way of communicating, but emoji are also a quick, simple way of sending a message that saves you from having to type out a whole sentence – good news for those that find tiny smartphone keyboards too fiddly.

Emoji can be used as shorthand in text messages
Emoji can be used as shorthand in text messages

It’s also a useful way of clarifying something you’ve written – for example, adding a smiley or winking face to a statement  can denote that it’s sarcastic or a joke – a notion that doesn’t always come across easily in a text message.

While the symbols can be used in emails or anywhere on the web, they’re most commonly used on Twitter and on private messaging apps like Whatsapp.

Some people have taken the idea even further with one plucky individual raising cash on crowd funding site Kickstarter to produce an emoji-based version of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. The name? Emoji Dick, of course.

While it’s easy to dimiss emoji as a childish fad, one of the reasons that emoji work so well is that they’re available across numerous platforms all over the globe.

An international consortium called Unicode which helps to maintain a standard for characters used in messages and online. Major manufacturers stick to these standards so that messages (including emoji) can be sent between different devices – such as from an iPhone to an Android phone.

How do I get emoji on my phone?

The latest version of Android has the emoji keyboard already built in, but an app may need to be downloaded on older versions of the software. For iPhone and iPad users, it’s easy to select the emoji keyboard under Settings>General>Keyboards.

There are scores of free and paid-for emoji apps that be downloaded for all platforms if you want a larger selection of images to choose from.
There’s even a Seinfeld emoji app which offers New York-based graphics from the classic sitcom.
A simple online search for your device should tell you where to find the emoji – chances are you already have them, you just need to know where to look.

How do I know what emoji mean?

Many of the pictures used are pretty self-explanatory, for example, a slice of pizza followed by a question mark is an obvious question (like “shall we have pizza?”), while the smiley/cross/tired faces are also very easy to understand.

The meaning of most emoji are obvious, but sometimes can be more subtle
The meaning of most emoji are obvious, but sometimes can be more subtle

However, not all of the symbols are used quite so literally, so it does take some getting used to. There’s plenty of room for ambiguity, so it’s largely a matter of trial and error and getting used to which symbols people use for what – teenagers might use different pictures to denote certain things compared to what their parents use so if you’re using them to stay in touch, you need to make sure you know what they mean.

If you’re struggling to understand a certain symbol, Emojipedia is a handy place for deciphering the more confusing icons.

Are emoji a good thing?

While tiny pictures of smiling animals may initially seem like a ridiculous way to communicate, emoji are here to stay and are growing in popularity, particularly among children and teenagers. Emoji is even listed as a keyboard option on the iPhone just like any national language.

And while the images may seem a little childish, the non-text nature means that the pictures are instantly reconizable and can be understood across different languages (although there are still some images that come from Japanese culture that don’t really make a lot of sense to us in the UK).

Obviously it’s still not acceptable to write homework or business emails in emoji, but for personal messaging, it’s something you need to understand as it could well be the first genuine universal language and it’s not just the younger generations who are using it.