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Emoji Takeover

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When your kids have to provide a dictionary with their emojis, you know you need to catch up. (Illustration:

By nature, we’re nonverbal communicators. We smile, or we grimace. We raise our eyebrows, we talk with our hands, we hug. Or we don’t. Translating all that innuendo into words typed onto a tiny screen with our thumbs (or, for some of us, an index finger) isn’t natural.

But while it’s hard to convey anger, excitement, confusion or joy via a short, plain-word text, there’s an emoji for that.

Emojis – those tiny illustrations also dubbed “emoticons” – are the cartoons we’ve come to rely on to imbue white-bread texts with feeling. And lately they’ve had quite a run. Rapper Drake tattooed Person With Folded Hands onto his forearm, resulting in a social-media explosion, with people debating whether the emoji meant praying hands or a high-five. A fan of Beyonce’s song Drunk In Love translated it into emoji, stringing the little symbols together like hieroglyphs set to music. And the entire classic novel Moby Dick was translated into emoticons, now existing as Emoji Dick.

Not long ago, I’d seen my children and their friends using emojis. Rarely I’d get one myself, or I’d get a text with a “J” at the end, not knowing what that was supposed to be. Finally I figured it out – someone had tried to send a smiley face that didn’t translate to my computer or phone. But now the Unicode Consortium ensures compatibility across computer languages like Microsoft, IBM and Apple, and the emojis generally come through legibly, whether we’re texting with someone using an iPhone or an Android. Everyone can get the joke. Or at least we have the capability of getting it.

Kind of like texting when it first hit, I thought I wasn’t supposed to be using emojis. I was too old and low-tech. If I wanted to express emotion I’d make a lunch date or get on the phone. Texting was perfunctory: Where is the party? What time is early dismissal? I left you a voice message.

But suddenly, it seems, I’m searching several times a day for just the right cartoon to text, like the Party Popper emoji  on birthday texts. (When did birthday texts rate enough, and how am I possibly so lazy?) Or Smiling Face with Open Mouth. Or Face Throwing a Kiss if I feel like I’ve used “xoxo” one too many times, or if I want to end a text conversation and don’t know how else to do it. Something short for, “I love you, but I’ve got to wind up this back-and-forth now… Face Throwing a Kiss!” A friend ends texts with Cyclone – to her the blue spiral says, “Okay! Everything’s good! I’m tired of exclamation points and I’m signing off!” She thinks of it as “a modern 10-4.” (Names of specific emojis courtesy of

Admittedly I’m in the slow lane when it comes to texting and emoji deployment. A 2012 Pew study reports that 63 percent of teenagers text daily (that’s 100 percent in my world), compared to only 39 percent who actually converse on their cells. (Or a mere 14 percent who talk over a landline, but do we really need to age ourselves that much?) All those texts cry to be clever. And apparently much thought goes into that. A recent conversation from the backseat of the car:

“Is that Satan (referring to Japanese Ogre)?”


“Oh, I’ve been using him.”


“When I’m grumpy but not grumpy enough to use the red grumpy face.”

“Well I think that one is Satan, so maybe he’s grumpier than the grumpy face.”

And another:

“What’s your favorite food emoji?”

“I like the eggplant and the cookie.”

“Omg, Claire! You can’t use the eggplant! There’s underlying meaning!!!”   

That was new to Claire and me, but apparently a universal. Upon further research, I learned there are several emojis with questionable innuendoes – the eggplant, peach and cherries each correspond to a similarly shaped R-rated body part. Omg – have I texted that eggplant??

Another issue: When your eyes are 40-plus and you can’t see the emoji. Like the friend who texted Grimacing Face: “I thought it was a grin, and my friend wrote back and said, ‘Why are you mad?’ I didn’t know what she was talking about. Apparently I’d used an angry face that I thought was a smiley face.”

Or that one that, to me, looks like a red blob. Someone sent a few over to say, “Have a good day!” What was that red blob? “She’s the Tango Girl [Dancer, according to Emojipedia]. She’s dancing, like, ‘Woohoo!’ Like, ‘Have a great time! Party!’”

Of course. Does that count if your eyes are too old to make out the picture?

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