Word Nerd: The word of the year is an emoji, and it’s crying tears of joy

What’s a word?

What qualifies as a word lexicographically has always been problematic. We can’t assume that just because a word is found in one dictionary that it will be listed in others. For example, Merriam Webster includes confuzzled: “Confused and puzzled at the same time producing a neologism,” chillax: “Chill out/relax, hang out with friends,” gription: “The purchase gained by friction,” and lingweenie: “A person incapable of producing neologisms” but none of these entries are found in the OED.

Yet the OED lists athame: “a double-edged knife used for ritual purposes in Wicca and other neo-pagan movements,” chav: “a young person characterized by brash and loutish behaviour,” Enviropig: “a genetically modified variety of pig that is able to digest phytic acid producing manure with a reduced content and hence environmental impact,” and studerite:“an arsenic-rich variety of tetrahedrite” but these entries aren’t in Merriam Websters’ Third New International Dictionary.

It appears, judging by recent decisions, that a word can be anything that is said or expressed in any manner whatsoever. For example, in 2014, the American Dialect Society’s (ADS) word of the year wasn’t even a word as we understand the term. The winner was the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. ADS spokesperson Ben Zimmer said that “although #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”

Given the Oxford Dictionaries choice of word of the year for 2015, the definition of a word is becoming even more confuzzled, for the “word” that won is not a word at all, but rather a pictograph:  

Officially called the “Face with Tears of Joy” this pictograph is an emoji, which is defined by the OED as “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communications.” Emojis have been around since the late 1990s, but 2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely.

Last year Oxford University Press partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emojis worldwide, and  was chosen as word of the year because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified that it comprised 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US — a sharp rise from 4% and 9%
respectively in 2014.

Emoji is a loanword from Japanese and marries e, “picture,” with moji, “letter, character. Its similarity to the English word “emoticon” has probably enhanced its popularity; however, the resemblance is totally accidental as emoticon blends emotion and icon. Like it or not, emojis are no longer the preserve of those who tweet or texters and have been embraced by many as a nuanced form of expression that transcends language barriers. For example, in August 2015 Hillary Clinton tweeted, ‘How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in three emojis or less.” (We’ll forgive her for not using “fewer.”)

To assuage old fogeys such as me who aren’t totally enamored by picture words, Oxford Dictionaries had more conventional words as candidates for 2015’s word of the year. They include ad blocker: “a piece of software designed to prevent ads from appearing on a web page,”  Brexit: “a term for the potential or hypothetical exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union,” Dark Web: “World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software; allowing users and website operators to remain untraceable or anonymous,” on fleek:  “extremely good, attractive or stylish” (apparently an arbitrary formation popularized in a 2014 video post on the social media service Vine by adolescent Kayla Newman, a.k.a., Peaches Monroee), they (singular): “used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.”

I won’t be shedding tears of joy over the selection of a pictograph as word of the year. I guess I’m just not on fleek. And just how do those at Oxford who chose this image as “word” of the year propose to list it in their dictionaries?

Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit  was published in April 2016.

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