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April 18, 2019

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Where do emojis come from?

The Emoji Movie

Sony Pictures / Courtesy

The colorful, expressive stars of The Emoji Movie.

60 billion

Emojis used on Facebook every day, according to the social media giant

Want to know who to thank for adding that taco emoji you use every Tuesday? It’s the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization based in Silicon Valley. The Unicode Consortium is the governing body that decides which emojis get added to the existing catalog—though individual companies get to design their specific look based off a mock-up. (This is why iPhones and Androids both have a “selfie emoji,” featuring an arm holding up a smartphone, but on the iPhone version the sleeve of the shirt is purple and on the Android version it’s blue.) While they might garner the most attention, emojis represent only a small portion of what the consortium does. The mostly volunteer-run group is also responsible for standardization of non-alphabetic systems of writing—think Chinese characters, Cyrillic letters, etc. Those characters make up the vast majority of their offerings.

Emojis have been around longer than you think

During the Great Depression, thousands of hobos rode trains across the country looking for work. The practice of train hopping was illegal and dangerous, and as a result hobos, created a code to send messages and make it easier for their brethren. The hobo code—“hoboglyphs,” if you will—informed travelers of potential hazards or resources. An outline of a cat indicated a kind woman known to be friendly to hobos; two overlapping circles warned of an unfriendly police presence in the area. For those outside the hobo community, the crudely drawn pictographs would attract little attention, but for those in the know, they were a valid and important form of communication.

In the same vein, some of the emojis you see today have double meanings. The eggplant? Usually a reference to a certain part of the male anatomy. The peach? Another body part.

Emoji equality

• 2012: Same-sex couple emojis were offered alongside their male-female equivalents.

• 2015: The emoji catalog made a major shift: It began offering five skin tones for its people and body parts. Yellow is the default, but users can hold down the emoji to reveal alternative skin tones.

• 2016: Google proposed (and got approved) 11 new emojis of women in professional fields, including police, chef, teacher, etc. Prior to these offerings, the most prominent female emojis were a bride and a princess.

Submit your emoji idea

Anybody can submit an emoji proposal to the Unicode Consortium online at The process is free. Selection factors include: expected usage level, image distinctiveness and the frequency with which the emoji is requested. Among the things you must submit in your proposal: an image showing the “intended appearance” of the emoji and which sort category it would appear in (face-positive, face-neutral, cat-face, food-fruit, etc.).

Emoji inconsistency

Most popular emojis

According to, which tracks usage of the iOS emoji and sticker keyboard EmojiXpress, these are the most-used emojis (as of April 10):

• Face With Tears of Joy: 167,216,636

• Heart: 82,861,589

• Face Blowing a Kiss: 63,480,658

• Smiling Face With Heart-Eyes: 46,979,839

• Loudly Crying Face: 17,208,203

• Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes: 16,707,667

• Thumbs Up: 15,952,093

Last year, Apple changed its pistol emoji to a squirt gun. All other providers (Android, Windows, Samsung, LG, HTC, Facebook and Twitter) have non-toy guns. The controversial change led to a debate among emoji-lovers and tech blogs about whether the perceived political statement could lead to confusion. Will iPhone owners text the gun as a joke to an Android user who might see it as a threat?

In a less extreme but far more bizarre example of emoji inconsistency, Samsung’s “cookie” emoji is actually two saltine crackers laid atop one another. Everyone else uses some form of a chocolate chip cookie.

Year of the emoji

The Oxford Dictionary chose the “face with tears of joy” emoji as its 2015 Word of the Year, a designation given to the word—or the “word”—that “best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations” of the year.

According to Oxford and the mobile technology business SwiftKey, the emoji was the most used emoji globally.

Emoji advertising

Twitter introduced targeted advertising based off emojis in 2016. Advertisers can hone in on users who have recently tweeted or engaged with tweets featuring specific emojis. Toyota took this option to the extreme by creating a series of videos—83 of them, to be exact—featuring various drivers whose heads had been replaced by emojis. This means a user who tweets using a smiley face might see an ad featuring

the same emoji.

New offerings

On Oct. 31, Apple released iOS 11.1 featuring 240 new emojis, including a face vomiting, merpeople, dinosaurs, a wizard and a rock climber. Later this year, 157 more will be added and include a red head, cupcake, pirate flag and hippo.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.