Tuesday, 24 November 2015

现实 | Brave new words

Posted by: Ryan O'Riordan

For those of you who didn't already know, the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2015 is the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji. After pushing the boat out somewhat with 'Selfie' in 2013 and 'Vape' in 2014, the organisation has decided to really go for it this time around, picking a word of the year that isn't a word at all. President of Oxford Dictionaries, Casper Grathwohl, attempted to explain the decision, saying: “Emoji culture has become so popular that individual characters have developed their own trends and stories”.

Of course, this selection prompted much hand-wringing in the media (The Telegraph gave the headline “RIP Language?” to their article) and, perhaps strangely, online as well. The general consensus seems to be that by picking an emoji as the word of the year, Oxford Dictionaries has single-handedly ensured the destruction of the English language. They have opened the door to a future where people don’t speak at all, preferring instead to communicate using helmets that display emojis on the visors. In the last few weeks, numerous scientists have expressed interest in the energy-generating potential of history’s great writers spinning in their graves. Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey is apparently a particularly promising site, with some experts stating that the corpse of Charles Dickens alone may be able to power towns such as St Albans for a few hours at a time.

Although I feel that something like ‘refugee’, which also made the shortlist, may have been more fitting, given the word of the year’s intended purpose of reflecting the 'ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015', I also feel that all this finger wagging is a bit misplaced.  

Surely the most important thing to take into consideration when picking a word of the year is the impact that word has on the way we communicate. If there’s anything that’s had an impact on this in the past few years, it’s emojis. In particular, the tears of laughter one has reached terrifying levels of ubiquity, making up 20% of all emojis sent in the UK and 17% in the US. The chances are, if you have any kind of social media account at all, you see or use the tears of laughter emoji multiple times a day.

While these stats alone provide plenty of support for the selection of the tears of laughter emoji as word of the year, I think Casper Grathwohl was on to something when he noted the effects of emojis on our culture and communication. Ultimately, the tears of laughter emoji will have made a bigger impact on the way people communicate, both in 2015 and in the future, than any other word that comes to mind. This is significant because it illustrates the consequences of technology on our language. With the new opportunities given to us by things such as emojis, we are able to converse in a way that is totally new. Even if you don’t use emojis personally, or dislike them, it’s hard to deny their popularity and influence.  For example, Andy Murray attempted to summarise his wedding day entirely using emojis, and US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked students to show their feelings about student debt using “3 emojis or less”.

While the attempts of politicians to ‘connect’ with the young will remain hilarious and cringe-worthy in equal measure long into the future, when someone with a serious chance of becoming the most powerful woman on the planet is using emojis, is it time to stop being so sanctimonious about the English language? While I await the first novel written entirely in emojis with both excitement and dread, I think Joseph Conrad had some very relevant words on this subject. He wrote that, as an author, his task was to use language to “make you hear, to make you feel, and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything”.

It is easy to throw our hands up in despair at the supposed degradation of English. It is interesting, however, to see the continued effect of technology on language, and speculate on how we will talk to each other in the future.  Perhaps Aldous Huxley was engaging in yet more future-telling when he said that “words (and emojis) can be like X-rays if you use them properly - they’ll go through anything”. He didn’t say the bit about emojis by the way.

Ryan's listening to: 'Feel You' by Julia Holter

Read my previous post here


  1. Loved this article! I didn't know this! I see both sides, an emoji as word of the year? Then again, I use it ALL THE TIME. It makes people realise I'm joking. Good take on it :D

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Yeah I think it's a bit weird, but also the right choice