I’ve never sent a Tweet or an emoji. Sometimes I use an exclamation point, but I feel a little uneasy about it the day after I did it.  I used to tell people that I only used six a year. I’ve relaxed my standards some.

A student came up to me the other day and said, “Did you see?” And then we talked back and forth until we were talking about the same thing. He had just seen the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. “I don’t think you’re going to like it,” he said. We looked together, and he is right.

The word is… an emoji. Not the word emoji, but an example of an emoji. The list of runners up wasn’t all that exciting either: sharing economy, they, on fleek, Dark Web, ad blocker, refugee, Brexit, lumbersexual. Last year, the word was vape. My favorite new word to end up on one of these lists in recent years is truthiness. I think our world needed that word, still does.

There are a lot of language groups and lexicographer types that come up with these lists. I am not, let the record show, against emojis. I don’t use them, and I think they are awkward to hear described on the radio. I appreciate new uses of language. Language always changes. This has always been true.

Watch this: https://www.ted.com/talks/rives_tells_a_story_of_mixed_emoticons

The other day I witnessed a pretty amazing historical moment. Three freshmen girls were giddy with excitement because their cell phone operating system had just released different colored versions of an emoji showing the middle finger.

“I have been waiting for this for so long!”


“This is the best thing that has ever happened!”

“Finally I can say what I really want.”


True story.

Also there were a few other girls burning with jealousy and angry with the injustice in the world because they did not have the same capability with their phones.

I am a far cry from being a prescriptive linguist, and can happily check the box descriptive if I needed to fill out some survey. I do, it’s true, feel a professional obligation to make the case for standard punctuation rules, and spelling and whatnot. Have you seen a paper without and punctuation marks at all? I see this often. It’s not pretty. But this hardly makes me a Grammar Nazi.

I am not against emojis or the introduction of new words. I support the interrobang. WHAT !? (I think those should be combined into one symbol sometimes.) Language changes. It always has.

Speaking of new words…Check this out: http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/

Yes, language changes, but knowing the “old” words can be pretty important. Especially if you are reading the “old” books. Learning textspeak, being emoji literate, etc. etc. are good things. Should we not consider those as an AND instead of an OR? Learn another language, learn many, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your native language. It’s probably happening that there are people whose native language is going to be best described as emoji or another language hybrid. I’m not sure about the implications of this yet.

I just started to read the book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain by Dana Suskind. I’ve read about the study mentioned in this book before. A rough summary is this: Some kids live in a rich language environment where they hear a lot more words than other kids. By the age of 3, there are roughly two groups of kids. One group of children has heard 30 MILLION WORDS more than the other group. The group of children who hear 30 MILLION MORE WORDS tend to do better in life. That is a rough summary, and there are a lot of things to say, and factors to consider. HOWEVER…

When I read about visual literacy, I imagine that the same ideas would be present with looking at pictures or creating them. Perhaps the introduction of emojis will revolutionize visual literacy, which is a good thing. Thinking of this, the thing I want to scream is: “AND not OR”

New forms of language should be added to your language toolbox and abilities, they shouldn’t replace them. (I wonder if anyone reading this immediately thinks of the telegraph?)

The emoji is great, but what is true in all word choice situations is that there is a time and a place for it. If you are talking on the radio, or giving a speech, or looking someone in the eye, than an emoji isn’t much help. Learn your emojis, sure. But when you stand up to speak, know how to use a few words that have sound, that have historical meaning, that have connotations that reach back to the beginning of language and culture.

I appreciate new words and methods of communication. This will always be a part of language. It might just be time to make a push for the more standardized use of the interrobang. I’ll support it.


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