In mid-November, Oxford Dictionaries unveiled their word of the year for 2015, though the winner was not wholly in line with those of its twelve-year history. The ‘word’ in question can perhaps be better described as a caricaturised drawing, as the lexicographers behind Oxford University Press announced that an emoji was worthy of the title, more specifically, that known as the “Face with Tears of Joy”.
Originally a Japanese creation, emojis are digital pictographs now used throughout much of the world. The choice was not altogether popular; however, and somewhat of a social media storm ensued. The dictionary’s blog post drew comments such as “I have lost all faith in humanity”, “it’ll be hard for anyone to take them [Oxford Dictionaries] seriously from now on”, and even “R.I.P English. You will be missed”. While it’s possible that the choice was fuelled precisely by the thought of causing this level of sensation, it is difficult to dismiss the ubiquitous nature of emojis; appearing on smart phone keyboards and popping up unprompted in Twitter posts. There is even a Sony Pictures feature film about them in the works!
According to Oxford Dictionaries, the emoji in question is the most commonly used, currently accounting for 20% of all emojis used in the UK, and 17% of those in the US, so if nothing else this award acts as a sign of the times, given its choice as the word of the year in 2015, Indeed, the shortlist of the title’s contenders reads like a lexical who’s who, including neologisms (“lumbersexual”) and an array of cultural signifiers (“on fleek”, “refugee”, “Brexit”).
Likewise, other dictionary winners include “binge-watch” (owing its success to the rise of on-demand media streaming), “identity” (due to news stories of a sexual or racial nature) and “-ism” (representing a range of in vogue political terms such as socialism, fascism and feminism).
Viewed side by side, these dictionary awards combine to portray part of this year’s zeitgeist, symbolising not only the slang words du jour but also highlighting important social obstacles English-speaking countries have confronted over the past twelve months. Over time, cultures change and languages evolve with them. These awards are a linguistic snapshot of that change, capturing the ways we use language, whether we’re proud of it or not. So while some may be writing epitaphs for the English language, it’s too late to bemoan the rise of the emoji, they’re already a part of our etymological DNA.