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Emoticons and Emoji


Life + Learning

  • emoji coming out of a phone

Jessica, Hespeler | February 1, 2019

Remember emoticons? If you’re of a certain age you remember this precursor to the modern day emoji. When the word “emoji” gained popularity I wondered what the difference was between an emoticon and an emoji.

As communication on the internet was heavily text based, and now with texting being the primary mode of communication, something was needed to convey all the nuance of emotion that text based communication lacked. First came emoticons, derived from the words “emotion” and “icon”. Emoticon is the term used for the text based characters (not the pictures) that convey emotion and are meant to be read sideways.  :) and :( being prime examples.  

In 1982, Carnegie Mellon university professor Dr. Scott Fahlmen invented emoticons, including the “smiley” as a way to mark sarcasm on an online forum. When a joke discussion caused real panic at the university (see the previous link for the full story) Dr. Fahlmen posted the following message and the emoticon was born:

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use:


Emoji refer to the little picture icons and their origin is a little different. Emoji (which is the plural form) originated in Japan. The word itself comes from the Japanese word “e” meaning “picture” and “moji” meaning “letter” or “character”. The original set of icons were created by Japanese engineer Shigetaku Kurita and are now part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In an interview with Vice News, he explained that he developed emoji when he worked at Japanese cellphone company NTT Docomo. Words alone made it hard to convey information and Kurita himself had witnessed moments when people became angry because of miscommunication through text. His team believed emoji could help. 

As emoji continue to gain popularity, not just in Japan but in other countries as well, different icons need to be created to address different cultures. Kurita says that when emoji became popular in Spain he was asked to create one for paella and the U.S. requested a hotdog emoji. 

Now new emoji are decided by the Unicode Consortium, an ominous sounding name for a non-profit organization responsible for text standards in all modern software. The consortium approves 50-100 new emojis every year and anyone can submit a proposal. It’s a detailed process, but you can see all the rules and submit your own emoji application!