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  • Genine Babakian

What's the Emoji for "Use Your Words!"

In the beginning there were grunts and hand gestures. Later came lovely cave paintings. The ancient Egyptians illuminated the world with hieroglyphics.

And then there were letters. Alphabets! These building blocks of language took the “pre” out of prehistoric. It took story-telling and communication to a whole new level, paving the way for literature, poetry, and…

The emoji. In a startling reversal of evolution.

I mean no disrespect to the cave paintings or hieroglyphics. They were critical steps taken toward the ultimate prize – the written word. What does the 21st-century emoji represent? A smiley-faced slide backward.

To those who argue that the emoji breaks down language barriers, I say, bah. Emojis are not necessarily cross-cultural. How many Americans are going to showcase the recently created “Death to America,” emoji released by an Iranian mobile messaging app?

And even within a common culture, I would argue that there can be wide-ranging interpretations of the same emoji.

I realize I am swimming against the current on this issue. Just about every one of my friends and family communicate in this manner – often to my bafflement.

My eyesight doesn’t help. I am grateful that I can still read a text on my phone without glasses, but once people start throwing emojis at me, I have to dig out the readers to decipher their meaning. And that does not always resolve the mystery. Even with glasses on, zooming in as far as I can go, I often wonder, what is that image supposed to be? Is it a sideways birthday hat with streamers? An empty ice-cream cone with confetti? And the meaning?

Or if I am texting, “Dinner at 7,” and my iphone prompts me to use a picture of a frying pan (maybe) with unidentifiable ingredients – is that a more expedient way to communicate my message? Or an enticement to come to the table? And how does Apple know what I am making for dinner, anyway? Sure, I could opt for a fork and knife emoji, but that could also be interpreted to mean: “I’m hungry,” “Let’s go out tonight,” “Did you empty the dishwasher?”

And the faces! Astonished face, loudly crying face, disappointed but relieved face. There is face screaming in fear, smiling face with open mouth and cold sweat, face with tears of joy – which looks a lot like smiling face with open mouth and cold sweat. And what about face with medical mask? If someone I love sends me that emoji without any accompanying text, panic will no doubt ensue. Perhaps that would give me the opportunity to use the face screaming in fear emoji.

Let's not forget the fantastically popular smiling face with heart eyes. Or, as I like to call it, creepy face with overactive thyroid. My husband recently sent me this emoji in response to a photo I texted him of a newly installed sink and vanity in our bathroom.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked him. Okay, I knew what it meant, but I wanted to make a point.

“Lovely vanity,” he replied.

“There’s an emoji for lovely vanity?” I asked.

I know, annoying, right? I even went as far as to look up creepy smiling face with heart eyes to see what it is supposed to mean. Here’s what I got: “Chat partner is aglow with happiness and can only see hearts. Doesn't really know what to do with his joy. Is in love or slobbering over someone.”

Which definitely led to some concerns I have about my husband’s feelings for the cheapest vanity I could find.

Here’s my point. The emoji might be fun. Maybe even be art – since the original 176 emoji produced by the Japanese national carrier, NTT DOCOMO, are now a permanent part of MoMA’s collection (insert two thumbs down emoji here). But they do not foster communication. Rather, emoji-speak is just another rudimentary language – one that requires translation.

In the near future, there may be many more like Keith Broni, an Irish national who is believed to be the first person hired to be a professional emoji translator. In order to tap into younger markets without appearing prehistoric, businesses require the support of specialists like Broni to avoid making emoji-related faux pas. Hurray for jobs! If a decade from now emoji translation has conquered unemployment, I will take back everything I have said in this post.

But I am more inclined to agree with Kevin Maney, who wrote in Newsweek: “Maybe emoji are, in fact, where language and thinking are heading—away from the precision of words and toward the primitive grunts of cartoon images.”

Primitive, indeed. Did you know that someone has translated Moby Dick into emoji? The novel’s iconic first line starts out with a red telephone symbol. To that all I have to say is… why?

So when my people text me weird party hats, clapping hands and tulips (emoji flowers on Mother’s Day? Really?), I am sticking to my letters. With one exception. I’ve always been partial to hearts. Red, blue, yellow, green. I tend to pepper my communication with whatever color strikes my fancy at the moment. Until I realized that each color symbolizes a different emotion: red for passion, yellow for optimism, green for reconciliation, blue for friendship, purple for sexuality.

And now I’m thinking, how many purple hearts have I erroneously sent?

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