Explainer: The mysterious world of emoji 🌚

A text containing a leafless tree, a spade, and face with bags under its eyes might be cause for concern, but the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee has decided these are the tiny icons we will need in 2025.

If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the new icon list – Emoji 16.0, announced today – also contains a fingerprint, a ‘splatter’ and a harp. 

And as renewable energy enthusiasts continue to wait for a wind turbine, the arrival of a new ‘root vegetable’, seems fated for pictorial innuendo.

Emoji for 2025
New emoji included in Emoji 16.0 / Credit: Jennifer Daniel Unicode Emoji Subcommittee Chair

Emoji. Love them or hate them, the tiny pictures are an established part of our text-based communication. But where do they come from? and who decides which ones we can use?

With the help of a tiny spade, Cosmos digs into the science of emoji.

Emoji are iconic

Emoji have reason to smile. Their use continues to rise 📈 across email, social media and text messaging sites. Apparently emoji appear in one in every five tweets and half of all Instagram comments.

The word ‘emoji’ comes from a portmanteu of Japanese words for picture and written character.

In their current form, the little shareable pics first emerged out of the Japanese mobile telecommunications industry in the late 1990s. 

The first emoji sets were designs contained within a 12-by-12 pixel square, or 144 dots taking up 18 bytes of data. 

An early set of 176 emoji by Shigetaka Kurita are so influential they are displayed in the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 

While Kurita’s pixelated designs in red, blue, yellow, green and black lacked the smiley faces popular today, many are familiar – with objects depicting weather, sports, transport, hand gestures and the love heart, which Kurita told CNN was his favourite design ❣️

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Emoji set by Shigetaka Kurita on display at MoMa / Credit: Flickr user Fred Romero licensed under CC BY 2.0

2015: the year emoji went mainstream

Last year we were all going Goblin Mode, according to Oxford Languages, whose word of the year is meant to reflect the mood of the preceding twelve months. 

But if you think that’s bad, spare a thought for the year 2015, when the word of the year wasn’t a word at all but a widely shared yellow smiley face with two blue tears of joy 😂.

“Emoji are no longer the preserve of texting teens” observed Oxford – even used by the likes of Hillary Clinton. The plural of emoji – which is how they tend to come – can be emoji or emojis, the dictionary 📔 decrees (Cosmos is using emoji, lower case e).

The crying laughing face emoji was the number one emoji for 2015 – making up 20% of all emoji used. 

Statistics show crying laughing face actually stayed number one for seven more years, until 2021 when its more melodramatic cousin, the loudly crying face 😭 – the one with tears gushing down in two parallel lines – took top spot. 

In fact, despite more than 3,000 emoji and a huge diversity of images and gestures, the top ten emoji tend to remain remarkably consistent, mostly variations on the smiley, the red heart and thankyou (or prayer) hands 🙏.

: – ) versus 🙂

Of course, emoji aren’t the only cute (and sometimes cringe) images shared on technology platforms. 

There are also GIFs, stickers, emoticons and crazy picture fonts like Wingdings and Zingbats –  even personalised memoji. 

And while they might sound similar, emoji and emoticons are generations apart.

Emoticons – short for emotional icons – predate the emoji, arising in late 1970s or early 1980s depending on who you ask.

Emoji and emoticons are distinct forms as Swinburne Associate professor Esther Milne outlines in her book, Email and the everyday

Emoticons are pictures composed on a computer keyboard or phone screen made up of a combination of letter, number and punctuation keys. For example, a simple side-ways smiley can be conveyed by a colon, dash and a closed bracket :-). You can swap the eyes for a semicolon and it’s a winking face ;-). 

Emoticons are simple – they’re easily copied and able to be designed by anyone. *<:-)

Emoji, meanwhile are selected and controlled by technology providers and encoded as pictures through proprietary software. 

And according to Milne we also use the two formats differently. On the platform X (previously Twitter), users tend to pop an emoticon at the end of a sentence. Whereas Emoji are peppered throughout. Emoticons are used alone, whereas emoji tend to appear in clusters.

Oops … wrong emoji!

Emoji are thought to be a quick, clear and accurate way of communicating. But the way we interpret them is far from universal.

Swiss researchers investigated the problem.

They chose a subset of 1,289 emoji (after removing flags, numbers and double-ups) and asked 445 people to describe individual emoji using one word.

After collecting more than 38,000 descriptions, with at least 30 people assessing and describing each emoji, they found only 16 emoji were completely unambiguous.

Those with a consistent shared meaning include: the rainbow 🌈, cow 🐄, apple 🍏, spider 🕷️, spoon 🥄, and coconut 🥥.

The most ambiguous emoji generally included symbols, especially astrological ones, or for example highly specific emoji representing, say aspects of Japanese culture, like the onsen ♨️. For these 55 the descriptive words chosen by the participants were indistinguishable from a random selection.

Sometimes the actual emoji design contributed to the confusion, not everything translates well as a tiny picture.

Meanwhile German, Japanese and Swiss researchers looked at the role of age and gender in emoji and emoticon use by using machine learning to analyse a dataset of WhatsApp instant messages.

German WhatsApp users were invited to donate their chat conversations to the study, exporting a chat and emailing it to the researchers.

Some 226 people contributed more than 300,000 messages. Containing nearly 2 million words, more than 81,000 emoji, and 48,000 emoticons.

Using machine learning they analysed the data and to infer age and gender from emoji choice.

They found, emoji use wasn’t correlated with age, but diversity of emoji use was. Older participants used a broader range of unique emoji and were more likely to use objects and people. Younger people were more likely to use emoji expressing emotions.

Women tended to use emoji more frequently, and in a more diverse manner – they included a higher number of emoji per message, a higher emoji to word ratio and a broader share of unique emoji. Women also preferred positive emoji, whereas men apparently preferred negative ones.


Have you ever wondered, why there isn’t an emoji for …. let’s say a drone, a skipping rope, or a mouse maze

It’s because emoji options are strictly controlled and vetted by a secretive decision-making body called the Unicode Consortium, established in 1991.

The consortium’s voting members are mainly representatives of the major technology companies. Along with others including the Omani Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. 

Members of the public can make suggestions or argue the case for certain emoji, every year from 4 April to 31 July, following the prescriptive proposal format. But it’s the Unicode Consortium which has the final say about which emoji are in, and which ones are out. 

To be considered, proposals for new emoji must demonstrate that the symbols are distinctive, have the potential to be widely used and could be relevant in different contexts. 

There’s no review or appeals, and rejected proposals are then subject to a two-year cool-down period before they can be put forward again.

A UK Renewable energy industry group found this out the hard way in 2021 when its bid for a wind turbine emoji was rejected for being too similar to a windmill. The windmill wasn’t an actual approved emoji – just another proposal under consideration. 🙃

But the consortium does have a useful job to do.

Unicode is the system for standardising all the characters in modern alphabets across different platforms, which means something on Apple will appear the same Google. (For example, when I type a capital E that has the unicode number 45. The Greek small letter pi is unicode number 960).

Crying laughing face emoji (aka tears of joy) is the Unicode number 128,514.

Sending the emoji with the cowboy hat to someone (which could be fraught given it’s the most misunderstood emoji according to Adobe) is actually choosing a number in the Unicode system, in this case 129,312. 

The face with the cowboy hat is then displayed to the recipient as a consistent symbol, even though the design might vary. 🤠

Do emoji matter?

A systematic review of emoticon, emoji and sticker use in computer mediated communication published in the International Journal of Communication analysed 51 studies of what it called non-text visual elements in computer mediated communication.

It found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that people use emoji to express emotions, avoid misunderstandings, and for fun and social purposes.

The studies show emoji use leads to higher perceived intimacy, positive friendly emoji lead to favourable impressions of the sender, but excessive use might be interpreted as insincere.

In fact, according to an Adobe report, 73% of emoji users think people who use emoji are friendlier, funnier and cooler than those who don’t. But they would think that wouldn’t they?

Is an emoji in a work email professional?

It depends who you ask.

Researchers in the US investigated the effect of emoji use in business email, particularly when they are used by the boss.

They invited more than 500 officer workers – with an even gender split – to assess a fictious boss’ communication skills based on an email. 

Emails were written by male or female managers with some including an emoji and others without. 

Participants were asked to judge the sender’s likeability and effectiveness.

Apparently when the recipient was a man 👨‍💼, emails with emoji were positive for a leader’s likeability and effectiveness. 

Yet women👩‍💼receiving the same email were likely to rate a leader as less effective. 

In summary: tread carefully 👣. Around half of US emoji users have sent an emoji that was misinterpreted or taken out of context. A similar proportion use emoji differently to their intended meaning.

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