Culture News

Sorry, Oxford English Dictionaries. Emoji Are Not Words — Let Alone 2015's Word of the Year

Last week, the Oxford English Dictionaries announced its annual selection for Word of the Year. It was not “fleek,” or “Brexit” or “lumbersexual,” though all three of these were runners-up. The phrases “sharing economy” and “ad blocker” also made the short list, but didn’t make the Number One spot.

No. That honor went to a word that isn’t a word at all. It’s an emoji. Specifically, the little yellow smiley face that is laughing so hard that giant blue tears are springing from its cartoon eyes. Ladies and gentlemen, "Face with Tears of Joy" is 2015’s word of the year.

Insert angry face emoji here.

No, wait. Don’t. I hate emoji, a word itself so cloying I can barely type it without shrieking in pain. These clever little symbols, used mostly in texting and tweeting—and here is where I turn into a crabby old lady, right before your eyes—are the final proof that the English language has fallen all to pieces, raped by people too lazy or emotionally constipated to spell out their feelings.

But that’s people, who can always be counted on to disappoint. It’s not the Oxford University Press, which publishes both the eminent Oxford English Dictionary and its lowbrow counterpart, the Oxford Dictionaries Online. Can’t we rely on such publishing institutions to uphold our language, to celebrate the beauty of the printed word, to be something other than celebratory about cringe-inducing symbols?

We cannot. Oxford University Press, which has been handing out Word of the Year honors since 2004, decided to this year celebrate the denigration of English word usage by handing a palm to a smiley face. The annual best-word honor is traditionally chosen by a panel of lexicographers and consultants to the dictionary team, but this year, the publisher partnered with keyboard-app company SwiftKey to determine which emoji got tweeted most this year, and then handed that cutie-pie symbol “best word” accolades. According to their combined data, the LOL Emoji (also known as Laughing Emoji, because senseless things should always have at least two names) made up nearly 20 percent of all emoji use in the U.S. and the U.K., presumably by people who are thrilled that they don’t have to know how to spell “I’m so happy I’m crying!” (What’s the emoji for irony? Certainly there is one.)

Oxford Dictionaries president Caspar Grathwohl equivocated in an interview with PBS, claiming that the publisher’s choice “reflects the walls-down world that we live in. Emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders.”

And so we are left wondering what the actual word of the year is. Is it “ad blocker,” a noun phrase used to describe a piece of software that prevents pesky ads from appearing on a web page? I want to think it’s “Brexit,” a term coined to describe the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Or better yet, “lumbersexual,” a new noun meant to describe the many young men who have taken to growing ridiculously long, scruffy beards as some kind of fashion statement.

All of these new words are not only lovely, they’re something even better: They’re words.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela