Emoji Snags 'Word of the Year' (Here’s Why That Makes Sense)

face with tears of joy emoji
Face with tears of joy emoji

It's official: Oxford Dictionaries word of the year isn't a word at all, it's "face-with-tears-of-joy," the most globally used emoji in 2015.

The smiley face with oversized tears made up a whopping 20 percent of all emojis used in the United Kingdom and 17 percent of those used in the United States, according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog. (For the emoji-illiterate, the "face with tears of joy" roughly corresponds to happy crying, although it's safe to say that most people using the emoji are not literally crying at the moment they insert it into a conversation.)

"Emojis are no longer the preserve of texting teens — instead, they have been embraced as a nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers," according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog post, which explained the rationale for the "word" choice.

Though traditionalists may wonder how a pixelated smiley face could have snagged the coveted word-of-the-year title, those pictures may actually help people translate the subtlety of emotions, some research suggests. [Smile Secrets: 5 Things Your Grin Reveals About You]

Emotional brain

Emotions play a key role in human communication, and words can transmit just a few aspects of an emotion. Hundreds of studies have shown that humans use voice tone, facial expressions and body language to convey meaning beyond the spoken word.

And while researchers used to think that humans had just six basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, joy, surprise and disgust, a 2014 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people have unique facial expressions for a broad array of complicated emotions, such as happily surprised, sadly angry or happily disgusted. So emojis, with their dizzying array of varied expressions, may better mimic such nuanced feelings.

And there's no doubt that text exchanges can lead to many miscommunications. Researchers reporting in 2005 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people routinely misread emails because of the lack of "nonverbal cues."

Spreading the feeling

Enter the emoji.

While pictorial representations of emotion may seem a poor substitute for actual face-to-face contact, they can clear up confusion in meaning, research suggests. A small, 2006 study presented at the CHI Proceedings on the use of emoticons such as : - ) (happy), :-\ (confused), and > : - ( (angry), showed that people interpreted these emotional flourishes as intended, and that users who had access to these touches were more satisfied with the experience.

And a 2013 study in the journal The Arbutus Review revealed that emotional contagion could spread via graphic emojis, just as it can when people see another person smile face to face.

This emotional transmission could stem from the way the human brain processes emojis. In a 2011 study in Electronics and Communications in Japan, researchers used functional magnetic imaging (MRI) to analyze the brains of people who were reading emoji-laden content. Sure enough, the emoticon caused a nonverbal portion of the brain called the right-frontal gyrus to light up. The more graphic the content, the more the temporal gyrus, a brain region responsible for recognizing facial expressions, lit up as well, the study found.

The dark side to emojis

Of course, emojis also have their dark side.

For instance, the 2006 study presented at CHI Proceedings suggested that people spent more time focusing on participants who were using negative emoticons, which made them feel more frustrated when working on a group project, than those who had no access to the digital emoticons.

And emojis might standardize, and therefore limit, the range of emotions people express, argues Evan Selinger, a philosopher at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"The more we rely on finishing ideas with the same limited words (feeling happy) and images (smiley face) available to everyone on a platform, the more those prefabricated symbols structure and limit the ideas we express," Selinger told Wired in 2013.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.