Lexicon Valley

Why We Should Declare an Emoticon of the Year

Will we ever get an emoticon of the year?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Gretchen McCulloch

You’ve heard about the words of the year—Oxford’s vape, Merriam-Webster’s culture, and Dictionary.com’s exposure, to name a few. And perhaps you’re even eagerly awaiting the American Dialect Society’s own WOTY vote, which will take place this coming weekend (I’ll be live-tweeting from it!). But in 2014 we didn’t just communicate with words—we also typed, texted, and tweeted to each other using another set of meaningful (though not pronounceable) symbols. So here’s why we should declare an Emoticon of the Year, every year.

Let’s start with why lexicographers and publishers declare words of the year in the first place. It’s fun, of course, but it’s also an interesting opportunity to discuss what matters to us—new words such as vape or selfie, new ways of using old words, such as mother of all or because reasons, and long-existing words that have become newly relevant, including the aforementioned culture and exposure.

Even more useful, however, is looking back through the archives of previous years’ words. It’s a snapshot of what people found salient or interesting or novel at the time, especially when you consider the combined results from the various word-choosing organizations. Scanning just the single oldest list, from the American Dialect Society, we can see that some words mark technological advances: cyber (1994) predates e- as in e-mail or e-commerce (1998); tweet (2009) becomes mainstream several years before hashtag (2012). Other words mark actual events: Y2K (1999), subprime (2007), occupy (2011). And still others are dated or even forgotten. Does anyone think about bushlips (1990) or being plutoed (2006) anymore?

So do emoticons, like words, exhibit trends or become dated? Research by the linguist Tyler Schnoebelen points out that smilies with noses, such as :-) and :-(, are more established and used more often by older people than their schnozless equivalents :) and :(. Anecdotally, I used to see a lot more variation in eyes, such as XD, XP, or =D, than I do now, while :3 and D: feel more recent. The upright ^_^ and ^^ have been around for quite a while (and may never have become truly popular in English except among Japanophiles), but the upright ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  is fairly new and far more mainstream.

But I still have a few questions. For example, when did <3 escape from IRC subculture? Other than <3, are there any nonface emoticons still in use, like @}->– (the rose emoticon)? Are there emoticons that were briefly popular but quickly disappeared? Imagine if a few decades from now we had lists of each year’s most prominent emoticons, like the ones we have now of words. Wouldn’t that be fun to play with?

Of course, we’d have to iron out a few ground rules. Does an emoticon need to be newly created in a particular year, or simply newly popular? (Newly popular is more consistent with how words of the year get chosen.) Are we talking plain-text emoticons only, or do we also include the standardized Unicode set of emoji? (I vote both—Unicode is continually adding to the emoji set, and, moreover, existing but newly popular words are already fine.) Who decides which emoticon wins? (Well, we’re OK with multiple organizations and methods for words.)

This year, my top contenders for emoticon of the year are ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (shruggie), and the emoji tears of joy and heart-eyes, while Global Language Monitor has already picked the heart emoji as its word—not just emoticon/emoji—of the year. But I want a yearly emoticon, not just an occasional inclusion among a list of words. So here’s the plan.

I said I was going to be at the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year vote this weekend, which, incidentally, is chaired by friend of Lexicon Valley Ben Zimmer, who sounded fairly open to emoticons in a recent interview. The society already chooses words in a number of categories, including “most useful,” “most unnecessary,” “most outrageous,” “most/least likely to succeed,” and so on. But the categories and the words in them are open to nominations from the floor, so I’m going to nominate “emoticons” as a new category, and we’ll see how it goes. If you’re impatient to find out, the nominations and votes will be live-tweeted on Thursday and Friday evening, respectively, using the hashtag #woty14.

So, will we end up with an Emoticon of the Year? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But if we do, how will I react? :D <3 :D

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