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How emoji are changing the shape of everyday English

Updated Wednesday 8th March 2017

What influence are emoji having on the way we communicate? Is the common use of the eggplant or facepalm emoji something to worry about? Philip Seargeant explores this online visual language...

The growth in popularity of emoji over the past six years has been startling. But not only are they emerging as a new pictorial ‘language’, there’s evidence they’re having an effect on everyday spoken and written language as well – at least when it comes to talking about sex.

Creative commons image Icon Twitter [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license When Kim Jong Nan, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, was murdered in Kuala Lumpur Airport in February, many of the headlines in the world’s press picked up on the macabre detail that one of the alleged killers was wearing a T-shirt with ‘LOL’ printed across it. There was something chillingly incongruous about the word in this context – both because of its literal meaning, as well as its associations with informal modern culture.

‘LOL’ is an initialism – an abbreviation made from the first letters of an expression or name – which developed in texting and online messaging, but has now entered the mainstream English lexicon. In 2011 it was included in the Oxford English Dictionary, along with other initialisms such as ‘OMG’.

In fact, both of these had been around long before the digital era – examples of ‘LOL’ crop up from the 1960s onwards, although in those days it was used to refer to a ‘little old lady’. But it was textspeak – the particular way of communicating that people developed as a workaround to the technological limitations of early mobile messaging – which led to a spike in its popularity. And although it started as written shorthand, it has since crossed over into everyday language where it’s used as both a noun and verb (‘doing it for the lols’; ‘she lol’d’).

Since emoji have replaced textspeak as the current focus for linguistic innovation (not to mention media obsessions about the way they might be ruining English), is a similar process of influence likely to happen here as well? Are emoji now such an integral part of everyday life that they’re leaving their stamp on English beyond the realm of social media?

The big difference between textspeak and emoji is that the former is verbal, while the latter are pictorial. For an emoji to influence spoken language it would have to cross modes. There are precedents for this happening however. A number of punctuation marks, for example, have moved from page to speech, often as a way of emphasising a point. A recent celebrated example was Whitehouse Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertion that Donald Trump had ‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period’.

Then there are uses such as the name of the ‘slash fiction’ genre, which comes from the punctuation symbol used to juxtapose the two characters being written about in a romantic liaison. Or the way that ‘hashtag’ has migrated from Twitter to spoken language, where it’s used as a means of retrospectively framing the meaning of an utterance. And beyond punctuation there are examples such as the facepalm gesture, indicating frustrated or exasperated disbelief, which has become so ubiquitous that ‘facepalm’ itself is starting to be used as a form of reflexive interjection in writing.

So how about emoji? Is the same thing likely to happen with them? At the moment the evidence is slight. But there are indications that it’s beginning, at least in certain contexts.

Unlike alphabetic writing systems, which allow an infinite number of words to be written from finite means (the 26 letters of the English alphabet, for example), there are a limited number of emoji ‘words’. This means that if you want to express anything that falls outside the current range, you need to adapt or combine the resources available to you in the best way you can.

It’s this that results in the ‘hidden meanings’ that articles in the popular press delight in exposing to their readers, when they pruriently reveal that, for instance, ‘the snapping camera can be used by someone looking for sexting to be taken to the next level’. In fact, examples such as this are just a straight-forward form of slang; and not even an especially covert one.

One of the most established slang terms amongst emoji is the use of the eggplant to represent male genitalia. According to one short history of the symbol, it’s ‘precisely because Americans had no cultural association with eggplants prior to the emoji revolution that it was the perfect euphemism’. In other words, it wasn’t getting used for its literal meaning (as it may do in a culture where eggplant-based cuisine is widespread) and thus was a mostly empty sign looking for a meaning.

Referring to it as a euphemism isn’t entirely accurate though. After all, it’s not being used as a less explicit alternative for something else. There is no literal icon for ‘penis’ in this instance. To talk about sex via emoji you have to get creative.

And the eggplant has now become so conventionalised that in certain contexts it’s being adopted back into verbal language.

A notable example is the hashtag #EggplantFriday, which was begun by hip hop artist B.o.B., and subsequently led to a trend for men posting below-the-belt selfies on Instagram at the end of the working week. When Instagram then blocked this as a search term, worried that it was flouting its standards of moral decency, the term gained even more notoriety – and the practice has since migrated to other, more broad-minded sites such as Tumblr.

The term was also used in print when naked photos of the singer Chris Brown found their way online, and one gossip website reported the news with the headline ‘Chris Brown’s EGGPLANT PICS Leaked’. Then there’s the upcoming Ben Stiller-produced Netflix comedy, The Eggplant Emoji, which tells the story of a teenager who accidentally emasculates himself while on a camping trip and then runs around trying to save the severed member before it’s too late.

In fact, the term has become so established that the metaphor is transferring out into the world in a variety of both abstract and concrete ways. For example, there was Durex announcing the introduction of an eggplant-flavoured condom to their range as part of a spoof publicity stunt in reaction to the Unicode Consortium (the organisation who oversee all thing emoji) turning down their proposal for a condom emoji.

And then there’s the company Eggplant Mail, which will anonymously send an actual aubergine, inscribed with a message of your choice, through the post to anyone you think might appreciate one. The purpose of this? For people to use ‘the phallic fruit to make up, break up and celebrate life’, apparently.

Of course, although for the moment the eggplant has a certain momentum behind it, whether this meaning will endure in the long term is difficult to tell. Slang is  notoriously ephemeral. On the other hand, the general process that’s happening with this emoji is precisely how language evolves. After all, the word ‘penis’ itself began as a metaphor, deriving originally from the classical Latin for ‘tail’. But over time it became so firmly rooted in the language that these metaphorical beginnings are now long forgotten.

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