Word of the Day

Emoji and dictionaries part one

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Written by Jeremy Burge

Jeremy Burge is the founder of Emojipedia and creator of World Emoji Day. Jeremy also hosts the popular Emoji Wrap podcast, discussing all things emoji with a series of guests, including lexicographers John Kelly and Jane Solomon. Having attended a talk given by Jeremy at the British Library’s recent World Emoji Day celebration, Macmillan Dictionary’s Senior Managing Editor Jo Jacomb was keen to find out more about this fascinating area of communication. So she set up a meeting with Jeremy at which they agreed to conduct an in-depth interview in the form of an email Q&A. The interview was long and wide-ranging, so we’ve split it into two parts.


Jo Jacomb: How to did you come to set Emojipedia up?

Jeremy Burge: I think most of us have found a time where we look up details about a TV show, politician, or landmark and expect to have a wealth of information available to us online. For me, the inspiration for Emojipedia was pretty simple in that I’d been using new emojis on my phone and wanted to learn more. Surprisingly the internet in 2013 provided very little information, so I went about doing it myself by creating Emojipedia.

JJ: Once the new emoji are confirmed what’s your process for getting the entries on Emojipedia?

JB: Every year the Unicode Consortium approves a new emoji list, which usually involves between 70-200 new emojis, depending on whether you count the skin tone and gender options. Emojipedia takes a staged approach for new emojis in that we keep emoji definitions broad when they are new. I don’t want Emojipedia to make a strong stand on how an emoji might be used before there’s any evidence of it.

Most often we start with a very basic definition for a new emoji, and an occasional hint at alternative ways it might be useful. Each year at least one or two emojis seem to become overnight hits – either in media commentary or real-world use. For those popular new emojis we tend to update the definitions more often to ensure they’re matching public sentiment.

JJ: You said in the talk that your entries are now compiled by a lexicographer – what prompted this change? Has this changed the nature of the entries?

JB: Entries on Emojipedia have been looked up over 350 million times in the past year so there’s a certain responsibility to making sure our information is accurate and up to date. Honestly we should have had a lexicographer on board earlier! Before this change, I was writing all the entries myself which despite my reasonable grasp of the English language, wasn’t ideal!

The biggest changes from having a lexicographer write the definitions on Emojipedia is increased consistency between definitions, and simply more time to research and describe the most common ways an emoji is used in the real world.

JJ: How does your site differ from a dictionary?

JB: Emojipedia is incredibly specialized to handle emoji-specific areas that a traditional dictionary might find difficult. For starters, we have a huge archive of emoji designs dating back two decades. Often an emoji entry might need to reference a previous appearance, and we can do that easily. There’s also the way we blur the line between definitions and encyclopaedic content.

Some emojis are interesting because of how they are used as an emoji, but others might be notable due to what the emoji is representing. Our entry for the pile of poo emoji makes barely a mention of faeces because most people know what poo is, so instead it discusses how the emoji is used. The calendar emoji has a detailed listing of why many platforms show different dates, and what those are.

Mostly the goal is finding exactly what people would want to learn when looking up any emoji.

JJ: In the past, dictionaries have included abbreviations that are used frequently in texts and on social media but these are now being replaced by emoji. Dictionary.com have addressed this and included emoji on their site but it’s not part of their main A-Z data – how do you think emoji could be included in dictionary data?

JB: I don’t envy traditional dictionaries when it comes to how to add emojis! In some ways each emoji is like a word and can be treated as such, but unlike words, each emoji comes into existence fully formed. There’s also the fact that emojis have formal localized names, but these can change over time. And if you just show the emoji character itself without a name, how do you search for it, or sort it?

It will be interesting to see how each dictionary addresses emoji in future. Some may ignore it, but that would be to their detriment, I believe.


Jeremy has a lot more interesting things to say about emoji, so to find out more don’t forget to look out for next week’s post.

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Jeremy Burge

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