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Modern Problems

The Most Confusing Emojis Explained

When to use the upside-down smiley, which kiss to go for and why we’re all fans of the happy poo

  • Photograph by Alamy. All emojis courtesy of Apple

Have you ever found it difficult to express complex emotions such as anxiety, elation or ennui? Have you ever sent a well-meaning text message, only for it to be taken completely the wrong way? Have you ever glowed with incandescent fury or turned green with nausea, but felt powerless to communicate any of this to your friends? If so, then you’re going to love emojis, the hot new trend in digital communication.

We say “hot new trend”. The origins of the emoji can be traced all the way back to the late 1990s, when the original set of 176 icons was released in Japan. It wasn’t until 2011, though, when Apple first included an emoji keyboard on its iPhone operating system, iOS, that things really took off. Fast-forward to 2017, and the emoji has gone global. There are now more than 1,850 to choose from, and the variety borders on the absurd: there are three types of cable car, two trams and 12 trains; a stopwatch, an alarm clock and an egg-timer; an ox, a water buffalo and two cows; two types of camel, Bactrian and dromedary; and no fewer than eight phases of the moon.

In a world where much of our day-to-day chitchat now takes place via short, hastily composed messages that strip away the nuances of speech, it’s easy to see why emojis have proven so popular. They help us to convey information usually expressed by our hands, face and voice. They provide emotional context in a medium where it is sorely lacking. In that respect, emojis are a powerful tool for preventing miscommunication. But they can also be the cause of it.

Despite emojis’ newly international flavour – there are now glyphs for tacos, hot dogs and paella – it is still overwhelmingly Japanese. Think of the “anger” emoji, for instance – four red lines used in anime as an abstract representation of veins bulging out of a forehead. The facial expressions remain relatively crude approximations of the human face, a state of affairs hardly improved by the fact that the images render differently on different devices. It’s a recipe for confusion.

As demonstrated by former British prime minister Mr David Cameron, who still thought that “LOL” meant “lots of love”, digital communication is a minefield to be negotiated with care. Emojis are no exception. This is a rich, strange new alphabet, ever-changing and full of ambiguities. We attempt to explain the ones leaving you confused.


THIS IS FUN, ISN’T IT? ISN’T EVERYONE HAVING FUN?

The empty stare, the gritted teeth: this pained expression has the power to convey anything from terror to constipation, yet most users settle on something akin to “awkward”. If you see this little emoji next to one of your Snapchat contacts, it means that – oh dear, how awkward – you share a #1BestFriend. All fairly uncontroversial. Up until 2016, though, it bore a remarkable similarity to “Grinning Face With Smiling Eyes”, an emoji with the same gritted teeth but a pair of upward-curving, “smiling” eyes, whose symbolism, while clear to Japanese cartoon fans, was not clear to everyone else. On a standard-sized phone screen, these two emojis were close enough to be practically indistinguishable, despite the fact that they conveyed completely different sets of emotions. The powers-that-be removed any ambiguity in the most recent emoji update, giving “Grinning Face With Smiling Eyes” a broad, cheesy grin. If you haven’t noticed this change yet – and they don’t exactly shout them from the rooftops – then it might be worth checking back through your messages to see if you’ve accidentally burned anyone recently.

When to use: those #awkward moments or when you’re “so excited!”


IS THAT A KISS, OR A WHISTLE?

Lips puckered into a provocative pout, this lusty little emoji clearly has only one thing on its mind. Sure enough, the official name confirms our suspicions: “Kissing Face”. Lean in a little closer, though, and all is not as it seems. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then these eyes betray a curious lack of passion, especially when compared to close relatives “Kissing Face with Smiling Eyes”, “Kissing Face With Closed Eyes” and the frankly rather slutty “Face Throwing A Kiss”. No, if this is a kiss, it’s the kind you’d give your mother. We much prefer to think of it as a whistling emoji, best followed by a musical note emoji.

When to use: when walking away from an unmitigated disaster that in all probability you caused – nothing to see here


I’M DELIGHTED. NO, REALLY, I AM.

A relatively recent addition to the emoji alphabet, this topsy-turvy smiley was no doubt intended to be used as yet another goofy, playful expression of happiness. That’s right, boring old happiness. Hasn’t it had enough dedicated to it already? The good thing about emojis, though, is that unlike words, they don’t have a dictionary definition, and that means we can use them however we like. In the case of the upside-down smiley, it has a secondary meaning as a symbol for low-key, passive-aggressive bitchiness, which, if you ask us, is a far more useful addition to the emoji alphabet than an eighth way of describing how blithely content with life you are. Think of it as the smiley version of an inverted crucifix, corrupting and subverting everything it stands for.

When to use: a) “I’m crazy, me”, b) a passive aggressive “You’re welcome”, c) “G’day from Melbourne”


INFORMATION DESK PERSON, AKA THE SASSY HAIR FLICK

It’s not entirely clear whether the intended meaning of this emoji was ever relevant. Whatever the case, it certainly isn’t now. The official name, for those who might be interested, is “Information Desk Person”, and the single hand held aloft with palm facing the sky was intended to be read as a “how can I help you?” gesture. Instead, it looked to anyone who has ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race like a theatrical, “gurrl, please” hair flick. Add in the IDGAF facial expression, and it’s no surprise that this emoji became instantly popular with sassy girls who say things such as “YAASS QUEEN”. But, what of the sassy guys who say things such as “YAASS QUEEN”? Rejoice, because you no longer need to feel left out. The most recent emoji update also included an “Information Desk Man”. But there’s still the option to stick with the original for emphasis.

When to use: when only the deployment of a “YAASS QUEEN” will do


EXCUSE ME WHILE I SASHAY AWAY

Sure, you could just read this as a woman dancing salsa and be done with it, but you’d be missing out on a great deal of subtext if you did. It’s not the fact that she’s dancing that’s relevant, but the manner in which she’s doing it: on her own, and away from you. In her classic femme-fatale combo of red dress and red heels, “Woman Dancing” is about as close to a sex symbol as you can get in emoji-land. Men, by comparison, get a purple-suited disco dancer holding a Mr John Travolta-esque Saturday Night Fever pose. Is it wrong to feel like we got short-changed here?

When to use: those go-big-or-go-home nights out


NO MEANS NO AND YES MEANS YMCA

No, these are not an incomplete set of dance instructions for the Macarena or the YMCA, but two separate emojis named “Person Gesturing NO” and “Person Gesturing OK”. In the former case, the body language seems pretty clear: “Back off! I know karate.” If you received that on Tinder, you’d probably get the message. In the latter, well... It’s slightly less obvious. Is she attempting to form the “O” of OK with her entire body? If so, where’s the K? Is she pretending to be a ballerina? What’s going on? To answer that question, we need to return to Japan, where emojis originated. In Japanese, the words for wrong and right are “batsu” (ばつ) and “maru” (まる), and they’re represented by an X and O, respectively. And they each have their own gestures: cross your arms over your chest for batsu, link your hands above your head for maru. In other words, do exactly what the two emojis above are doing. Got it? Good.

When to use: when you want to say a big fat no and/or, “Today I’m channelling Mr Bruce Lee/Mr Rudolf Nureyev”


THE MYSTERY OF THE LEVITATING BUSINESSMAN

This is notable for two reasons: one, for being one of the few male-only symbols left after the most recent update – which, given that “Man With Bunny Ears Partying” was included, feels like an awful case of double standards – and, two, for being perhaps the weirdest emoji of them all. Why, you might reasonably wonder, is there a picture on my phone of a Blues Brother levitating? What on earth could it possibly mean? The answer is... Well, as far as we can tell, it doesn’t really mean anything. It originates from Webdings, an internet font developed by Microsoft in the late 1990s for use on Internet Explorer 4.0. The man who designed it, Mr Vincent Connare – who also holds the dubious honour of having created Comic Sans, the preferred font type of village fete flyers – was looking for a glyph to represent the word “jump”. Inspired by a Japanese import version of an LP by 1980s two-tone ska band The Specials, he came up with the idea of a besuited jumping man whose shadow made him look like an exclamation mark. Webdings was later incorporated into Unicode, the standardised system used to encode and display all text – including emojis – online, and the rest is history. As for the exact meaning of this peculiar little chap, and how on earth you’re supposed to use him in conversation, that’s still up in the air. Pardon the pun.

When to use: a message to Rudy?


PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!

It’s listed in Unicode as “Person Raising Both Hands In Celebration”, but the true meaning of this emoji appears to shift with context. In 2015, when Instagram engineers used a machine-learning algorithm to look for correlations between emojis, words and hashtags, they found that the hands-up emoji was applicable to a wide variety of different situations. It could be used in its intended form, as a celebration (“Yeah! Gimme 10!”), an entreaty for patience (“Woah there, hold on a minute”), a gesture of exasperation (“Oh, I give up!”) or an appeal to the heavens, depending on who sent it and the situation to which it was being applied. All of which leads us to the somewhat less-than-shocking conclusion that the meaning of emojis, just like the meaning of words, is very much context-dependent.

When to use: take your pick from: “gimme 10”, “woah there”, “praise be” – or some combination of all three (“good work, celestial deity, but that’s enough, thanks”?)


YOU’RE A PIECE OF SH*T (IN A GOOD WAY)

In what is either an extreme low point in the career of Sir Patrick Stewart, or an extreme high point in the public’s attitude towards bodily waste, or quite possibly both, it was revealed in January that the Shakespearean actor will contribute his vocal talents – presumably in return for a large sum of money – to the Poop character in 2017’s upcoming The Emoji Movie. A strange career decision for a man who has played the title role in Macbeth, but remember that the nature of his role shields him from reputational damage. When cinemagoers say, “Patrick Stewart was shit in that movie,” he won’t necessarily feel obliged to take it as a critique of his acting performance. Anyway, we digress. There is a pile of excrement with a smiling face on it on your phone. Why? As you might have guessed, it can all be traced back to the spiritual homeland of emojis, Japan. The word for poop in Japanese is either “unko” (うんこ) or “unchi” (うんち). The first two characters, “un” (うん), can also be translated as luck or good fortune (運). So sending someone a pile of steaming crap in Japan can actually be a good thing. Who knew?

When to use: this is shit/this is the shit


THE WORLD-WEARY CHICK

There comes a time in every man’s life when he realises there is nothing left in the world to excite him. It’s a feeling closer to disappointment than sadness. It’s a shrug of the shoulders, an exasperated sigh, a slow shake of the head. It’s the realisation that every day is the same, nothing interesting ever happens, and it all adds up in the end to diddly-squat. That’s the vibe we’re getting from this chick – and he’s only just pecked his way out of his egg. Consider the quizzical look, the tilted head, the slightest shrug of the underdeveloped wings. It’s as if he’s seeing the world for the very first time and thinking, “Is this it?” It’s more than just a cutesy emoji; it’s an expression of profound ennui. An ennui-ji. Or maybe that’s just us. Is that just us?

When to use: should the big questions of life be met with a resounding “meh”