Emoji: A tiny graphic can be worth a thousand SMSes

Emoji, the Japanese pictures of anything from a hospital to a whale to a snowboarder that are now installed as standard on iPhones, are adding a whole different vocabulary and sense of playfulness to digital interactions. We provide six uses for the playful images.

Various Emoji characters used on iphones around the world.
Courtesy Emoji
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Communicating by text has never been cuter. Emoji, the tiny, colourful pictures of anything from a stack of cash to a cactus to a fax machine, have been used in SMS messages in Japan since the 1990s but they're now taking over the rest of the world.

While it has been possible to download emoji apps to smartphones for some time, an emoji keyboard now comes as standard with iPhones, and hundreds of new pictograms have been added in recent months. Even characters on US TV shows such as Parks and Recreation and Girls have been getting to grips with the new tech. Here's a guide to why you might find yourself emoji-ing with the best of them.


There are 12 different heart emoji on the latest iPhone operating system, including one that's sparkling, one with an arrow through it and one that looks like it's flying. There's also a kiss, an envelope with a heart on it, a heart-shaped gift box, an engagement ring and a couple with a heart in between them. If that's not enough to get you started, go ultra-cutesy and text your sweetheart pictures of puppies, ice cream sundaes or flowers. It's not dorky, it's romantic.


Sometimes you're running late and there's just no time to type "I'll be there in five minutes" or "Meet you back at the house". There are plenty of emoji to help with this, including pictures of cars, schoolbooks, buildings, modes of transport, a person in a bath, egg timers, a switched-off phone, a "no volume" symbol and clocks showing every possible time in half-hour increments. Add the odd question mark, exclamation mark or smiley face and you have a serviceable text in seconds.

Expressing more

When you're used to the 26 letters of the alphabet and a few makeshift emoticons that you have to tilt your head to read, having emoji can make it seem like you've accessed a whole new vocabulary. You can select a smiley face that's blushing bashfully or has hearts in its eyes rather than the same old configuration of dots and brackets. There's even a picture of a cat doing an impersonation of Edvard Munch's Scream, with giant eyes and paws on its face, which is perfect for when you want to express how outraged you are but you know you're probably being melodramatic.

Private jokes

Emoji can be self-deprecating, ironic or just silly, and when you're sending them back and forth between your closest friend, they can turn into a language that only the two of you understand. A puppy-dog face or an ambulance in reply to someone complaining about their day can be sympathetic, mocking or both. Apparently the pile of excrement with a smiley face is popular in Japan.

Rewriting literature

Telephone, man, boat, whale, OK hand signal. That's "Call me Ishmael" in emoji, according to Fred Benenson, whose rewritten version of Moby Dick, Emoji Dick, was accepted into the Library of Congress in February. There's emoji poetry all over the web, and the blog Narratives in Emoji has a pretty funny retelling of Les Misérables with a lot of crying faces, French flags and musical notation.

Exploring art

Look up #emojiarthistory on Twitter to see famous artists' work condensed into tiny cartoons: Grant Wood's American Gothic, for example, becomes old woman, knife, fork and old man. Galleries such as the Tate and Los Angeles County Museum of Art have even tweeted their own efforts.

For one of the finest examples of art actually made from emoji, take a look at Fred Benenson's New Yorker cover submission, made from hundreds of the tiny symbols.

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