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Emoji and English

2014/10/20

The word "emoji" has joined other such greats as "karaoke", "typhoon", "tycoon", and even "skosh" to become the latest Japanese word to be adopted into English. Regular Japanese folks would be surprised to see newscasters and even major politicians in the West using this word as part of common English vernacular, but these charming "picture letters" are just too useful when highlighting emotion and subtleties in written text to not become a part of daily life for anyone with a smart phone.

"Emoticons", which are different from emoji, have been around for a long time (and are not going anywhere!). The first emoticon;  :-) , was created by Scott Fahlman (a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon) back in 1982 to help express to his colleagues when he was joking while they were working out the kinks in 'electronic mail'.

In 1999, as electronic mail, now email, was becoming the new communication standard, and cellphones had become commonplace in Japan, the amount of email being sent increased exponentially and users were loading up their emails with small image attachments to help communicate emotions. Mobile phone companies were troubled by this trend because pictures were so much larger in file size, causing extra burdens on bandwidth, even though many users were sending the same popular images back and forth again and again. Mobile operators needed a solution for these 80 million rapidly growing userbase in Japan. The solution was to standardize a handful of popular 'emotional letters', which is what emoji means in Japanese, and pre-load these images onto each phone, so that a small code could be sent to tell the phone which image to display, rather than transferring each image bit-by-bit every time. These 'emoji' were extremely popular for users and operators for their efficiency within text and bandwidth limits. However meanwhile in the English speaking world, everyone just continued to make due with a handful of sideway-smiling emoticons.

It wasn't until 2008 and the release of the iPhone in Japan that the emoji would explode onto the scene in the English speaking world. Apple Computers was hoping to break into the hugely successful Japanese cellphone market, but was having a hard time getting local cellphone companies to accept their contract demands until the 5th largest mobile operator at the time, Softbank, finally accepted a deal with one of their conditions being that the iPhone include emoji, the rest is history. Curious users from other countries discovered the collection of emotional letter images and quickly adopted them, albeit sometimes missing the intended use and meaning within a Japanese cultural context, however the name at least stuck, and it would seem Emoji are here to stay. If you are teaching in Japan, you might find your co-workers surprised to learn that the word emoji is used abroad, or it might make for a cute topic for a one-off English lesson.

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