The emoji war

Neerja Singh

What does the rise of the emojis say about the English language? That it is not able to fully capture the depth and complexity of our thoughts. We therefore incorporate emojis into our communication to better express ourselves. They are, after all, the alternative to physical cues. The graphic figures make it possible to express a broader range of feelings other than the non-committal “I am fine”. Emojis save us time while enriching our interactions. When tired, for instance, just a bunch of hearts, smiling faces, and flowers work instead of words. The recipient gets what is meant. In those few seconds while selecting an emoji to express a feeling, there also occurs a moment of reflection.

But then, amidst all the flurry of this graphic connection, who would have anticipated a generational difference over the smiley emoji? It appears that the graphic no longer indicates mere friendliness. In fact, the young view it as dismissive, even sarcastic, and passive aggressive. It is clearly time to stay a step ahead and get an education on the new meanings some of the popular emojis signify.

Take the cry-laughing face. Until now, it conjured up images of someone rolling on the floor with laughter but gen-next has found a replacement, viz., skull and crossbones. The thumbs up no longer means fine, or great, or no-problem. It is going out of fashion and being considered ancient vocabulary.

The red love heart has been replaced with flames of fire. So, there you have it! Emojis are a great and fun way to connect with each other, but they can also be an intergenerational and cultural minefield, particularly when every generation presents a distinct culture today. In other words, one person’s friendliness can end up being another person’s offense, when an emoji is misinterpreted!

The teens are giving emojis meanings no one anticipated. For instance, when the emoji that features two hands pressed together is sent, does it send a message of gratitude? A request for a favour? Or is it hands clasped in prayer? And is the emoji with the smiling face and two hands signalling a friendly wave “hello”, or giving a hug, or is it a “high five”? The adults today are perhaps best-off avoiding use of the emoji they are unsure about. It is safer to stick with something that is more straightforward and less open to misinterpretation.

The use of emojis has evolved progressively. An Emojipedia analysis ( says that nearly one in five tweets now contain at least one emoji. There is nothing inherent in the symbols, and like words, their meanings emerge to relate to how people within a community use them. At times, the meaning may be based on a visual metaphor, other times it will replicate something in verbal language, and it might well copy verbal slang literally, such as a single flame for the word ‘lit’. Philip Seargeant, author of the book The Emoji Revolution writes, “It will start with one particular community who starts a trend, and then this gets picked up by other groups, until it spreads wider and wider. And if it gets picked up in the media, or by someone with a large number of followers, it spreads that much further and more quickly”.

Historically though innovations in language spring most strongly from the young, to be then picked up across generations. Gen Z (born 1997-2012) has made emojis both ubiquitous as well as niche. A live streaming platform for gamers like Twitch, boasts of hundreds and thousands of custom-emotes that all have different meanings. On the gaming and chatting app called Discord, you can make your own emojis. We are clearly entering an era of ultra-niche emoji use online, which is refreshing, but also very confusing. And in this brave new world, Gen Z’s emoji use is feisty, more ironic, and nuanced.

for instance, spread via TikTok communities like wildfire in the year gone by. It falls under a specific category of internet communication that is gathering fame on both TikTok and Twitter: fairy comments. This language kills with kindness. The comments start off cute and wholesome, and then take a sharp, shocking turn to become dark, ironic, and often insulting. Indian teens have lately used extremely sarcastic sentences with soft emojis such as butterflies and sparkles and hearts to unleash their wrath around issues they feel strongly about. Just as tastes in fashion and music, the popularity of emojis reflects a community trend that comes and goes. Cat emojis that were huge some years ago are today out of the new generation’s collective favour.

The young on social media stray further and further away from their English language teachers! Standard punctuation and spelling get the short shrift in favour of not just convenience but for reasons that are sometimes unfathomable. Have you heard of a comma ellipsis? It goes like, “Hope you have a Happy New Year,,,” Well, the older generations have had a habit of peppering their writing with regular ellipses. Take this phrase, “We should meet soon…” Young people read the trail of three ellipses as ominous. It conveys a foreboding. Something unsaid, unclear and couched, open to interpretations. The comma ellipsis likely evolved as a direct response to the period ellipsis. It allowed for a more emotional, attention gathering and comedic reading. They can either be saying “I’m trailing off because I’m upset!” or “I’m trailing off or pausing but also I’m joking!” The young use informal writing to convey tone.

Texting is the primary way for Gen Z to communicate with friends and family. No wonder it matters to them that their emojis are interpreted correctly. This largest generation on the planet is known to constantly update their online lexicon. That little harmless looking graphic can lead to a lot of confusion. I remember my daughter sending me a black heart once and the debate we had thereafter on what it meant. Did it convey sadness? Was it a symbol of love and affection? Or was she simply sharing how black lives mattered to her?

To function well in the remote and digital spaces we increasingly inhabit, it is important to understand how to use emojis in a contemporary and relevant manner.

Now did you know that removing your WhatsApp display picture (DP) is seen as an attempt to seek attention?

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational diversity with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She is a TEDx speaker and represents the Professional Speakers Association of India on the Global Speakers Federation Board. She can be reached at

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