“Mom, where do emojis come from?” “Well, son, let me tell you the story of the birds and the bees—by which I mean the Emoji Subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium.” Yes, that’s how those little pictograms on your phone get born. There is an official list of emojis that every computing device using the Unicode standard—which is basically all of them—will be able to parse and display. Every so often, a new batch of emojis gets submitted for approval, and some of them actually get added to the official list.
Other potential new emojis include something called “SERIOUS FACE WITH EYE MASK AND CAPE,” which kind of looks like Darth Maul crossed with one of those Minions from Despicable Me, and “FROWNING PILE OF POO,” which I can only assume provides a necessary counterpoint to the smiling pile of poo we all know and love.
People have been asking this ever since the first emoji were invented, but these new ones again prompt the question: why?
I’m sure the answers to that question will be debated at length by the Emoji Subcommittee, which will make their final judgments in early 2018. But here’s my answer, as an armchair communication-design critic: now that emojis are mainstream, we need them to get weirder.
And not just weirder—more specific. The new spec proposes a bunch of oddly specific objects and animals, like a petri dish and a lobster. But those round yellow faces are where the rubber really meets the road with emoji. Emotions are messy and awesome and complicated and challenging to get across in words: this is why poetry exists. It’s also why languages are rightly full of words for hyperspecific, strange, but totally real emotions like schadenfreude (German: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune), kaukokaipuu (Finnish: a feeling of homesickness for a place you’ve never visited), or ilinx (French: the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction).
Emojis aren’t a language of their own—yet. But these little faces have arguably become just as good at doing the job of those odd foreign words. They may even do the job better, because they can acquire and express the same kind of semantic richness on the fly, just from the context in which they’re used. For example: that whacked-out “OK eyes” emoji can easily mean “YES LET’S TAKE ALL THE DRUGS” in one context; in another, it may perfectly something else entirely, like, oh I don’t know—maybe “the strange excitement of wanton destruction”?
The odder and more specific the emoji, the more powerful and generative they can be for expressing the ineffable. A graphic designer named John Koenig has already written a whole book of invented emotion-words for just this purpose, but really, how much are any of those going to catch on? Weird new emoji, on the other hand, are built right into a mass communications medium that is currently eating the world. Maybe, as a linguistic purist, that makes you feel “RED FACE WITH TONGUE STICKING OUT WITH BEAD OF SWEAT”. Personally, I think it’s great—or, to be more specific, “GRINNING FACE WITH LETTERS OK AS EYES.”