Modern Expression:

The Story of Emoji Creation

Abigail Catterall. October 15, 2016.

No matter how you communicate, whether it is via email, texting or social media, chances are you use some form of emoji. In fact, a recent study found that 92% of the online population use emoji. (Emoji Consumer Science Team, 2015) These small pictures have become part of our everyday lives and whilst there is great debate surrounding their use and effect on language, not many people are aware of the decisions or history behind the creation of emoji.

What is an Emoji?
‘Emoji are pictographs (pictorial symbols) that are typically presented in a colourful cartoon form and used inline in text. They represent things such as faces, weather, vehicles and buildings, food and drink, animals and plants, or icons that represent emotions, feelings, or activities.’ (Unicode, 2016) They differ from emoticons which are defined as ‘specifically intended to depict facial expression or body posture as a way of conveying emotion or attitude in e-mail and text messages,’ (Unicode, 2016) making them a subset of emoji. Emoji are now managed and encoded by the Unicode Consortium which is ‘a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalisation standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.’ (Unicode, 2016).

The History of Emoji:
Emoji were originally made available and used on mobile phones in Japan in 1999. However, as each mobile phone vendor developed a different set of emoji with limited interchange between vendors, emoji were often incompatible. This became a further issue with communication between those not using Japanese mobile phone and email vendors attempting to communicate with those who were.

The current total of Unicode emoji characters is now 1791 (Unicode, 2016) with (face with tears of joy, one of the original emoji set) being the most frequently used emoji on Twitter. (Rothenberg, 2013). Each of these characters are based on an original black and white Unicode version but have multiple alternative versions depending on which vendor is being used, for example Apple, Windows or Gmail. The fact that each of these emoji have been originally encoded by Unicode allows users of any vendor to send, receive and understand messages without having to type a single letter.

Surprisingly, the basic design of the original Unicode emoji set has changed very little since 2009. Almost all characters remain the same as when they were proposed although they are now often more colourful and detailed depending on the version being used. Recent changes have included a range of different skin colours being made available for existing emoji and well as new characters which aim to represent the diversity of emoji users. However, it is the meaning of many emoji characters which has continued to evolve the most depending on time and location as a lack of concrete definitions has allowed emoji to be applicable to anyone and everyone.

The Future of Emoji:
The list of Unicode emoji continues to grow with every version of Unicode as more characters are added. However, the path to creating a new emoji is not a simple or easy one. For a new emoji character to be considered, anyone can submit an emoji character proposal which discusses selection factors such as expected frequency of use based on current search statistics; whether the emoji would fill a gap in the existing emoji set and a proposed set of images for the emoji. The proposal is then referred to the Emoji Subcommittee where it is revised three times. If the emoji proposal is successful, it is forwarded to the Unicode Technical Council where it is accepted and revised. Not all proposals are accepted by the Emoji Subcommittee and only three out of the five emoji forwarded to the Unicode Technical Council are approved and included in the next version of Unicode. The whole process lasts at least a year and in some cases almost two years.

Proposed dumpling emoji characters (Jennifer 8. Lee, 2016)

An example of proposal a currently going through this process is the dumpling emoji which was proposed and presented to the Unicode Technical Committee in January 2016. The proposal was accepted and the dumpling emoji has become an official candidate for inclusion in Unicode 10.0. Part of the discussion during the proposal presentation was if the dumpling emoji should be full frontal or a three quarters view and if multiple dumplings should be used as there are multiple sushi. (Emojination, 2016) The written emoji proposal submission included data showing the Google trends of various forms of dumpling compared to hamburger; a brief description of the emotional content linked to dumplings and an explanation of the historical persistence of dumplings.

With the use of emoji continuing to grow, it is important that the characters available continue to be applicable to everyday life so if you feel there is something missing which is widely significant and you have the time and resources to make a comprehensive proposal then why not?


Emojination, 2016. Happy Year of the Dumpling! We Did It!

Jennifer 8. Lee, Y. L. K. L. N. M. a. E., 2016. Dumpling Emoji Submission, s.l.: s.n.
Rothenberg, M., 2013. Emojitracker.

Unicode, 2016. Emoji Charts: Full Emoji Data, v3.0.

Unicode, 2016. Frequently Asked Questions: Emoji and Dingbats

Unicode, 2016. The Unicode Consortium.

Further Reading:

Original Emoji Proposal

Current Emoji Candidates