Word of the Day

Emoji and dictionaries part two

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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 lexicographer John Kelly and Jane Solomon from Dictionary.com. This is the second part of his interview with Jo Jacomb, Macmillan Dictionary’s Senior Managing Editor. You can read the first part here.


Jo Jacomb: How would you account for cultural differences in the Emojipedia entries?

Jeremy Burge: One goal on Emojipedia is to keep our entries as concise as possible while conveying the most important information. There is somewhat of an ‘online’ monoculture for many English-speaking countries which means there are fewer differences in cultural meanings for each emoji than some might assume.  The most sane answer is to list various ways an emoji might be used in different regions of the world.

Over time it would be good to see Emojipedia offer content localized to various regions.

JJ: What do you think about including emoji in a thesaurus? Is this a better fit for them? So the emoji could be presented as a valid alternative to ‘delighted’, ‘scared’ or ‘gross’, for example?

JB: Emoji as an alternative to a word makes a lot of sense. This might not allow discussion of the emoji-specific qualities of some characters, but does cover one key use: show me an emoji that could be used as an alternative to this emotion, sport, or object. A useful way to tie them in.

JJ: Dictionaries are making a conscious effort to make sure entries are more inclusive, such as striving for gender and race neutrality – you’d mentioned that emoji are trying to improve in this area as well. The images are an obvious area where work is happening but are you making changes to your entries on Emojipedia to reflect this?

JB: The biggest challenge when it comes to gendered emojis is whether the primary definition should vary for each gender of person doing a profession, or performing an action. What happens if people use the woman version of an emoji differently to the man? Or a certain skin tone? There’s plenty of potential issues to go into there, even if that might be the case.

There’s also the challenge of using an official name for an emoji like ‘woman’s boots’ and then explaining that this of course could be worn by anyone.

In a lot of ways the gender-neutral emoji designs show how in some areas, having two or three gendered options seems entirely unnecessary and often comes down to very minor details, like thinner eyebrows on the woman astronaut than the man. Then again, people often assume ambiguously gendered emojis to look like men, which means that having multiple options might at least avoid the appearance that every emoji is a man, if only one gendered option was supported.

JJ: When an emoji takes on a meaning different from that intended by Unicode – so like the pinch and goat emojis, for example – how do you handle that in your entries? Do you include the community meaning or do you stick with the one Unicode intended? What weight of evidence must there be for a meaning to change?

JB: We don’t stick to a mandatory formula for all entries, but in short we try to convey a visual description of the emoji for those with vision impairments, the intention of the emoji, and also alternative meanings or uses. If an emoji is rarely used for its original purpose, we’ll let the alternative meaning lead the definition as the common use – with Unicode’s intention listed later.

JJ: What’s next for emoji?

JB: In the next few years we’ll see a push for a gender-inclusive alternative to just about all gendered emojis, and more efforts to ensure all humans on the keyboard can support skin tones. At present, most emojis with more than one person shown in them such as the families or handshake are limited to the default-yellow skin tone.

Requests for more customization of appearance  –  both for humans or for objects – continue to be popular. Whether different colour options or mix-and-match hairstyles and facial features are something adopted is yet to be seen, but it’s a possibility. Whatever happens in the emoji future, Emojipedia stands ready!

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