In Defense of That Dumb Emoji as Oxford Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’

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“That’s right,” wrote the Oxford Dictionary blog yesterday, “for the first time ever, the [OD] Word of the Year is a pictograph.”

Here it is:

And, in case you didn’t know, emojis have official titles. This one is called “Face with Tears of Joy,” and it was chosen, according to the OD’s blog, because it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.”

Now, the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere was a kneejerk one. Many lamented our slouch toward a post-language society; others shifted a too-heavy load onto the little face by blaming it for their loss of faith in the world (if not a paradoxically all-powerful God):

It’s clear to me, as I’m sure it will be to you, that this school of cynics has tumbled headlong into a pitfall of OD design, for the parameters of 😂 are not determined by its weird title. “Face with tears of joy” it might be, but that emoji also represents the wild visage of a person who has lost it. In other words: no other word or pictogram — certainly no new word or pictogram — gives better expression to their complaint. (You could, in fact, replace their tweets with a link and a 😂.)

To put this in a more complex and less immediately accessible way, declaiming that you have “lost faith in the world” is another way of shouting that you have “lost your mind.” 😂 can be understood as a pictographic expression of this state of being. It’s an understandable reaction to a year that was not reserved for tears of joy; it was more a year of losing one’s mind, a time where laughter rushed in as a first responder — an EMT who nursed heartbreak with the injection of manic giggling in the face of cruel, personally unmanageable absurdity.

It’s also useful to point out that the anarcho-Christian philosopher Paul Virilio has already coined a word, if not a visual expression, for this condition: philanoia. Virilio describes philanoia as a love of madness — 😂— born from a world of science and technology “which is now seeking to organize the self-extermination of a species that is too slow.” The idea is simply that the limit-testing speed of renegade technological innovation is emptying or scrambling our minds, leaving us in a fit of ecstatic mindlessness. It’s sort of like the way that people over the age of 55 can remember what day of the week it is but young people can’t. Spurred by addiction, our insane rate of interfacing with digital technologies is deleting our working memories — to the point that we no longer remember why we are laughing and crying at the same time.

This leads me to another reason why 😂 is a defensible candidate for “word” of the year. It represents a terminus for the entire OD project.

Simply put: we are tired of dumb new words. Each year the OD, driving under the influence of data, spews out of its exhaust a miniature lexicon of techno-cultural hot air and calls it a list of “words of the year.” Even a quick glance at these lists reveals their uselessness. Hypermiling? Vape? Or let’s look at some of this 2015’s other candidates. “Ad blocker” sounds like “sunblock” for an encroaching future when advertisements replace UV rays. “Brexit” is a typically British and therefore colonialist back-formation of Grexit. “On fleek” sounds like a sex act with a repulsive yet somehow arousing extraterrestrial species. “Lumbersexual” — nevermind.

The problem here is one of quality control: with the OD, in 2015, there isn’t any. And the reason there is no quality control is that the OD is not designed for it; it is (by definition!) a descriptivist organization: it is merely supposed to describe or list all of the new words people are using (above a given threshold). And although we could debate whether having a list of words at all is a prescriptive act, there is certainly no denying that calling a word or list of words “the word(s) of the year” is a way of telling people which words are supposed to matter to them.

I gather that people are tired, if even on the subconscious level, of this unyielding flood of new words gathered from the internet. The problem, again, is one of description versus prescription. On what nerd’s authority am I supposed to use word hypermiling? In fact, the only part of the population that seems to be unweary of dumb new words includes teenagers and trolls (I hate that word, too), which is likewise ironic because both overuse emojis.

The diminishing authority of the OD’s word choice is made apparent by the prescriptive power of their better selections — in every case, a power the OD did not confer. In the example of the singular “they,” which is used to refer to a person of unspecified sex, this prescriptive weight comes not from the OD, but from the community of non-gendered and gender-fluid persons who used it for years in speech and writing when it was not acceptable — when it was not allowed.

Emojis pull their prescriptive weight from a more nefarious community, one that is darkly representative of our philanoiac times — the Unicode Consortium! (Members include Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, and of course Google, among others.) Basically, emojis earn their significance and meaning from scarcity; the legal red tape required to organize these monster technology companies is so great that new emojis are rarely forthcoming. This, along with their standardization — they need to be useable across carriers — creates the conditions for global significance (especially if you add in their faciality). The takeaway: you can use emojis while feeling like you know what they mean, and you don’t necessarily feel flooded out by how many there are. This could change.

But for the meantime, this stupid emoji, this “Face with Tears of Joy,” doesn’t bother me overmuch. It’s nothing more or less than an insane reaction to an insane situation, the image of a brain-blank, data-drunk, technology-addled culture on the verge of total neology fatigue. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an emoji is worth zero. That’s enough for me. 😂.

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that the ‘word of the year’ choice was made by a staff across Oxford Dictionary teams. It was not the exclusive decision of the Oxford English Dictionary.