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Since When Is An Emoji A 'Word'?


I love my battered old copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. I've rarely needed to look up a word that I can't find in there.

Take, for example, the word "word." Its primary definition, according to the Concise Oxford, is:

"Any sound or combination of sounds (or its written or printed symbol, customarily shown with a space on either side of it but none within it) forming meaningful element of speech, conveying an idea or alternate ideas, and capable as serving as a member of, the whole of, or a substitute for, a sentence..."

I was surprised, in light of this definition, to learn that Oxford Dictionaries 2015 Word of the Year is the pictograph of the emoji referred to as "Face with Tears of Joy." You can see the explanation on Oxford's web site:

/ iStockphoto

"There were other strong contenders from a range of fields, but this image was chosen as the 'word' that best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015."

Let us put aside, first, the outrageous suggestion that Face with Tears of Joy captures the mood and preoccupations of 2015. In Oxford, maybe, but not around here: I would have thought the mood and preoccupations of the time have had a lot more to do with, for example, human displacement on an unprecedented scale resulting in a global crisis of migration threatening the European Union; also, terrorism, climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and the upsurge of protest on college campuses, and so on.

But what makes this year's choice of Word of the Year actually surprising is the fact that, at least by Oxford's own definition or any other reasonable one, it is just not a word. It's an emoji, after all, or an emoticon, or a pictograph.

Now, I'm all in favor of playfulness when it comes to matters linguistic. And I'm entirely persuaded that it's good to recognize the role, indeed, the novel role, that emojis play in our communication and, so, in our broader linguistic life. But why call it a word when it isn't one? Actually, Oxford Dictionaries tried to have it both ways. They anoint the emoji as the Word of the Year, but they actually refer to it in their explanation using scare quotes. They call it a 'word.'

Why isn't it a word? Well, it's obviously not a sound or combination of sounds. It works in any language, after all, regardless of sound. It isn't alphabetic. And while it is a symbol that maybe be printed with a space on either side, although this isn't required, it no more forms a part of, or the whole of, or a suitable substitute for, a sentence, than, say, a shrug of the shoulders does, or a rising intonation, or a question-mark.

It is not so much a conveyor of ideas — what linguists and philosophers might call a proposition or a thought — as it is a marker of the attitude or state of mind or feelings of the speaker or writer.

It seeks to communicate, on the page, something that, in a way, can't be communicated; namely, how something is said or the manner in which it is expressed. It is as if, instead of finding the appropriate way to express our meanings, we express our meanings any old way and then stipulate, with an emoji, that we say it with a smile, or indeed, with tears of joy.

There's actually a paradox lurking in the vicinity here. Just as the fact that you didn't mean to hurt someone doesn't make it the case that your teasing comment didn't hurt, and just as the fact that your sentence ends with a question mark (Isn't it hot?) doesn't mean that you were really asking a question (Open the window, dammit!), so the fact that you insert an emoji doesn't alone fix the force or manner of what you have said or written.

And, so, maybe this emoji does capture something of the ethos of the times after all.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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