Emojis as words – Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year

Last week, Oxford Dictionaries announced the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji as its 2015 Word of the Year (for the US and the UK).



Except not really.

For what it’s worth, I don’t emoji. I’m not cool enough. (Remember when you were a kid and you had to program the VCR for your parents and you thought they were LAME with a capital L-A-M-E? I feel I’ve reached that stage of LAMEhood a lot earlier in life than my parents did.)

But I’m still a big fan of this announcement, and I’m impressed with the team that made the decision and announced it to the world. They would have known that the purists would be OUTRAGED that a non-word would be chosen as a word. (In fact, maybe that was the point. Who doesn’t love a good language debate?)

But they stuck with it. This was the single most popular emoji worldwide in 2015. It captures so much in a single image, and is understood across borders of language, literacy and sarcasm.

Besides, is it really a non-word? What is a word? This from the fifth edition of the Macquarie Dictionary:

word noun 1. a sound or a combination of sounds, or its written or printed representation, used in any language as the sign of a concept.

The sign of a concept. The concept of shedding tears of joy, perhaps? Or of laughing until you cry?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an emoji has to be worth … well, at least four. Take these two. ‘Face with Tears of Joy.’ ‘Smiling Face with Sunglasses’.


Just as there are subtle differences in use with words, so there are with emojis.

I challenge you to pick one of the potential meanings of either of these emojis, then think of a single word that would express that meaning. A single word. Can you do it?

I can’t. I really can’t. “I just laughed until I cried. What a pisser!” “Living the life, bro. All cool.” Neither of these conveys the strength of the emotions as well as those little pictures, and they use far more words. And ‘lmao’ and ‘cool’ certainly don’t cut it.

That’s why emojis are so useful. So powerful. So popular. And, whatever your view of them, that’s why they’re here to stay in our largely electronic world.

Adding them to the dictionary should be interesting, though. Stay tuned in future years for how that plays out. Will we have separate emojionaries? (Too bad ‘Pictionary’ is already taken.) And how will the images be ordered? What system do you use when alphabetisation isn’t available?

Sorry. Tangent. That happens when I talk words. Back to the Word of the Year announcement.

I was very happy to see ‘they’ in the shortlist for words of the year.


Not as a new word, of course. ‘They’ has been the third person plural pronoun FOR. EV. AH.

But it has now gained widespread acceptance as the gender-neutral third person singular pronoun.

When I wrote about ‘they’ earlier this year, I remember one Twitter reader replying with, “Nope. Never gonna happen. ‘They’ is plural. Period.”

Unfortunately for them, they were wrong. *insert ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji here*

Meanwhile, the Oxford Dictionaries Australian Word of the Year is yet to be announced. And Macquarie Dictionary will wait until 2016 to make its decision (using the novel approach of waiting until the year is over before choosing the word to define it).

This word nerd can’t wait to vote!


What do you think of awarding an emoji Word of the Year? And what would you like to see as Australia’s Word of the Year for 2015?


  1. says

    Even as a non-emoji person myself, I am totally down with that being selected as the winner. I have a massive problem with “on fleek” though. I have on heard one single human being use that term all year. Maybe ‘cos I’m old. But anyhoo, I don’t think it deserves a place – it’s the 2015 equivalent of “fetch”. STOP TRYING TO MAKE “ON FLEEK” HAPPEN, PEOPLE.

  2. says

    I heard that the word of the year was not a word the other day. At first I was a little gob smacked, but then I figured it’s a sign of the times as we are communicating in writing in completely different ways. I’m glad they chose a “I’m so happy I’m crying” word of the year, We need as much “I’m so happy” as we can get …

  3. says

    I love emojis. They are like a new dimension to language. Remember Julie Bishop’s interview with buzzfeed? It was great. I love pure language but I think even us purists need to recognise that it’s evolving.

  4. says

    I don’t emoji but I do insert manual smiley faces… :-) and winky faces… 😉 Ant that’s about it. I’ve only recently discovered how to find emojis on my iPad but that’s about it. The guys I work with are always inserting gifs or giphys or something into their conversations…

    Maybe I’m getting old.

    • says

      Haha, my blog page auto-emojied your manual smilies! Emojis are taking over the world. THE WORLD!

      I don’t know how to emoji. Like I said, L-A-M-E.

    • says

      I’m supremely overly happy about ‘they’. Disproportionately, probably! But we users of language are pretty clever, really. Solving our communication problems with words new and old.

  5. says

    I can see where they are coming from and must admit, while not using emoji very often that is one I would use the most! I think the purists need to remember that some of the earliest forms of written communication were done with pictographs and hieroglyphs, so communicating via pictures is actually pretty old-school!

  6. says

    I did read that it wasn’t a word this year and then forgot to go back and actually click on that particular click bait. When I read your title I was shocked but on thinking about it I suppose it makes sense! It’s how we communicate these days, they add to our conversations. Although, I think we each add our own meaning to each.

  7. says

    I am no word-ist but I am not ok with the emoji. Yes it might have been the most used emoji of the year but were those people that added “face with tears of joy” to the end of anything they have writing really laughing and crying at the same time?? Really??

    • says

      Probably not! But how many times were the people that wrote lol or lmao actually laughing out loud (or laughing their arses off)? Not to mention how many times people ‘literally’ did things they didn’t do at all. Exaggeration is a big contributor to meaning shift.

  8. says

    Who knows, maybe written language will one day become obsolete and we will all just “Emoji” – a global language! The “laugh til you cry” emoji is perfect for me, I don’t know if it’s middle age or what but seriously, whenever I laugh these days I have tears streaming down my face – it gets very messy and I need to make sure I always carry a tissue!!

    Visiting from #teamIBOT x

  9. says

    I’m a huge fan of emojis, but I have to say I’m surprised to learn it’s word of the year. We all just became cool y’all. Love it. I’ve only heard on fleek used by someone on Catfish. I remember liking it then, but have never heard it used again. I’ve never heard of lumbersexual either. I think my husband might be one! Eeek!

  10. says

    I think emojiis are dumb and I don’t get the need to use three at a time…but I’m 107 so there’s a lot I don’t get. I’m off to read they post. I recently came into regular contact with a they, and that’s the only stumbling block for me, but it’s habit, I guess.

    • Emily says

      I love ‘they’. I love that we found a solution to the problem that gets around our inherent reluctance to add to the pronoun category. Let’s just use one we already have! Der!

  11. says

    I never knew there was a ‘word of the year’! I do like emoji’s – they are helpful to express yourself without needing words. Interesting shortlist of words for the year – surprising actually! LOL

    • Emily says

      I found it very interesting, too – in fact, the shortlist increased my vocab! Can’t wait for Macquarie’s list next year.

  12. says

    haha my Mum has recently discovered Emojis, except she just thinks they are nice pictures and inserts any old one in a text. For example… Her “Hi what are you up to today *piece of cake emoji* Me “not much Mum, why are you eating cake at 8am?” Her “no why would you think I was eating cake”? Me “your emoji on your text” Her “No I just liked the picture *horse emoji*…….. I give up…..

  13. says

    I am in both the word purist camp and the emoji camp. I love emojis but don’t really consider them words on their own, more as a word enhancer, like a cherry on my semantic cake! I am always a bit flummoxed when someone messages or leaves a comment with only an emjoi – how do I respond to that – with more emojis of course!

    • Emily says

      Ooh, sitting on the fence without sitting on the fence. Thanks Sammie. Very interesting take. (And I’m totally stealing the phrase ‘a cherry on my semantic cake’! Trust a food blogger to come up with that one!)

  14. says

    Haha…I love that an emoji has been chosen as the word of the year. I do get purists getting frustrated at it though :) I do love my emojis so I’m not complaining.

    As for Aussie word of the year, I reckon it should be phubbing. I used it at work sometime after reading your post and people were surprised. Then I used it with a teenage client who was checking their phone in session and they cracked up. So I totally vote for making it word of the year!

    • says

      Go phubbing! The editor of the Macquarie was involved in deciding on the word ‘phubbing’, so choosing it as WOTY would seem ulterior. Also, they tend to choose words that spike in use. We can work on it for 2016 though?!

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