On Saturday night in Brooklyn, the emoji spelling bee was off to a late start.
“We were trying to come up with some emoji jokes to entertain you while you wait,” said one of the competition’s judges, Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist who earlier in the day had spoken at Emojicon, a conference celebrating all things emojis. Following a day of scholarly exchange, the bee was a chance for emoji enthusiasts to get competitive—and a bit silly. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll be doing knock-knock jokes in emoji yet, because there’s no knock-knock emoji. Is there like a door, and a hand … fist?”
“There’s the closed fist that is often used as a sign of solidarity,” said the bee’s emcee, Zoe Mendelson. “But people can start using it as a knock-knock joke starter.”
Organizers had intended for competitors to use Google Docs, but there had been some problems, so they turned to Twitter for entries instead. Improvising, they lent out the password to a communal Twitter account to people who didn’t use the service. Emojicon founder Jennifer 8. Lee even let someone borrow her phone to participate. About a half-hour behind schedule, the bee kicked off with its first-round challenge: “Make America Gay Again.” Mendelson and McCulloch occupied the stage at Brooklyn’s Bell House with the other judges while about 35 people, both on-lookers and contestants, watched in the audience. Those participating tweeted their entries using Twitter and the #emojispellingbee hashtag.
It’s probably worth mentioning that an emoji spelling bee doesn’t involve any actual spelling. It’s more like charades, or Pictionary—players are given a phrase that they must interpret using only emoji, and those with the most decipherable translations—or creative ones—win.
But the name is too catchy to resist, and the group behind Emojicon knows it, having put on bees in the past at events like South by Southwest.
For “Make America Gay Again,” judges were initially confused by how some of the contestants attempted the convey the word make. “Is that a Village People reference, with the hammer?” one of them asked.
“Oh, make, make!”
“I kind of like the one with the clocks because the clocks are never used, so that’s a really good temporal representation,” said another judge.
“Can I just get an explanation of what’s the hamburger, plus … ?” a judge asked.
“Hamburger for America!” Mendelson said. “I love that.”
McCulloch, the resident linguist, praised one entry’s “emoji syntax.”
“I think that’s really a very poetic rendering, with the circular arrows in between to represent the changing of places. I think that’s very evocative.”
The judging was not particularly technical, with prizes going to anyone whose entry caught the judges’ eyes and inspired some color commentary. There were enough low-level prizes to hand out—tumblers with the Tinder logo—that everyone in the room got one, including some children who were watching but not playing. Sure to be a big hit in the school cafeteria!
Round 2 asked participants to emojify “Families Belong Together.” Mendelson said she had questioned whether using political phrases at the bee would be too dark, which made her think of a related point: “Are emojis serious, are they not serious, are they disrespectful if they’re not serious? Or are they at this point neutral?” She added that she once got fired from a job for emoji-ing a memorial to Nelson Mandela. “At that time, it was a huge offense. I think that things have changed.”
Round 2’s big winners, in one judge’s words, “expand[ed] this idea of ‘Families Belong Together’ beyond just the human-centric realm.”
Next up was Round 3, “I Only Love My Bed and My Momma, I’m Sorry,” a lyric from a Drake song. “How are y’all going to represent only?” McCulloch asked. “Sorry could be pretty hard, too. Bed, I think I know what you all are going to do for bed, but the more difficult words are going to be interesting.”
Judge Jane Solomon, a lexicographer for Dictionary.com, praised the “vertical thing” one entry did.
Another entry earned laughter and applause for depicting Drake by using the wheelchair emoji—a reference to his character on Degrassi, the Canadian teenage soap opera he got his start on as a teenager.
Further rounds took on “I’m in a Boss Bitch Mood” (a Cardi B lyric—lots of red high-heel emojis for that one), “War on the Media,” and “She Persisted.”
The prompt for final round of the night was “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” The pressure was on. “I don’t want to just see a bunch of shruggies,” Mendelson warned. “Try harder. Try to convey the wild inappropriateness.”
Portrayals of Melania Trump varied from the queen emoji next to a castle, to the queen next to a carrot, to the woman tipping her hand next to the nail polish emoji. The crowd reaction of the night—a slow-building “ooh” that gave way to cheers—went to an entry that constructed a jail of chains around the baby emoji, and topped it with red high heels and the Slovenian flag. “You’re a mad, mad man,” one judge said to the person behind it.
Another entry’s meaning took a minute to dawn on the audience but soon earned a murmur of recognition. “Asshole!” Mendelson cried.
After a brief deliberation, the judges distributed more prizes according to no rules or rubric in particular, to those who they remembered having good tweets throughout the bee, whether for individual entries or overall performance. The top prizes were gift certificates to Timberland, the outdoor apparel company whose signature product closely resembles the hiking boot emoji.
Host Mendelson thanked participants, who prepared for the next program of the night, a performance of a selection of songs from Emojiland: The Musical. And Lee, the Emojicon founder, set about reclaiming her device.
“Who has my phone?” she yelled.