In 2015, Oxford officially declared ‘the face with the tears of joy’ (emoji) as the word of the year – although there’s nothing ‘official’ about it since the word of the year is not even a word!
At one level, uncle Oxford’s move smacks of a desperate attempt to be cool.
At another, it reflects the paradox of the current times and climes.
Just like most of our friends on FB are not even friends.
Or like a custard apple is neither custard nor apple.
So the emoji is ruling the linguistic roost; and I, for one, am not complaining.
In fact, my modesty prevents me from claiming that the emoji owes its christening as a word of the year, at least partly, to me.
Ever since I laid my roving blogger’s eye on it, I have befriended it, patronized it, propagated it, and at times exploited it, rather copiously, in my communication.
No text message of mine is now complete unless I punctuate it with a wide-eyed/smiley-eyed/teary-eyed/bleary-eyed or a frowny-eyed emoji.
Before the emojis came along and vivified my communication, my messages languished in the barren black and white backwaters of monochrome.
Insipid. Impersonal. Nonchalant. Almost rude.
Orphan words lay abandoned on the cold brutal text frame.
Like specks of dandruff on a bone-dry bald pate.
Devoid of any hue from my vibrant personality palette.
Woefully lacking in human juices.
Failing to establish a connect between the sender and the sendee.
The emoji (with all its assorted country cousins) came along and vibgyored my life with myriad hues of texcitement.
All those pent up emotions which I earlier struggled to cast into words are now expressed with a swanky flourish.
No fear of getting sucked into the cliche-zone or sounding like a cross between Shakespeare and Munshi Prem Chand.
I love playing Emoji Tennis with my daughter who studies overseas.
The two of us can spend hours tossing the chubby, oval, sun-kissed rascals to and fro, across continents, till their facial features dissolve into a blur, and their yellow skins get exfoliated to an angry burnt orange.
Of course, there are times when it takes me longer to choose an emoji corresponding to my mood than it does to compose an entire message.
Also, I need reading glasses to tell the difference between a smirk and a grin, a closed eye, and a wink.
Often, during a session of emoji tennis, as I battle the delicious dilemma of deciphering the subtleties and nuances of each emoticon, my daughter has enough time to enjoy a mid-session power nap.
James Bond’s ‘Spectre’ came and went, without a dent. But the specter of the geeky, cheeky emoji with its lively army of little minions is running to packed (phone and computer) screens.
The emoji wave, in crackling emotional textures from drool to cool, witty to pretty, and naughty to haughty, is gaining a chokehold on the global semantic landscape, surreptitiously sneaking into almost all modes of electronic communication.
As social media has grown (and character counts, shrunk), speech has been deboned of all pauses.
Consonants have collapsed into each other. Sentences have dissolved into a semantic soup.
Long compositions have been rendered comatose by twitter and SMS.
Communication is now amputated and condensed into linguistics capsules.
This new T-20 style of communication may break some Oxbridge crockery and leave your grammar nerves twitching, but there’s no way you are going be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
I wish to confess that the urge to be semantically cool is hardwired in my DNA.
Unfortunately, the growth in my enthusiasm to up my cool quotient is in inverse proportion to my memory that, sadly, is slipping downhill faster than Kejriwal’s popularity.
Just when I thought I had become a bonafide member of the cool brigade by mastering the acronym army of YOLOs, LOLs & ROTFLs, along came the emoji!
Today I’m no longer an Alice in Emojiland.
One of the biggest advantages of embracing the emoji is that I can now comfortably let my brain lie in the deep freeze.
To color my prose, I no longer need to go crack my cranium for carefully enunciated words.
No need to wait for inspiration to trigger my dopamine levels.
No need to scan a retinue of colorless adjectives. No need to go granular trying to explain my point-of-view to friends.
Whenever my eloquence deserts me or the fertile froth of ideas dries up unannounced, these little elves come to my rescue with a bouquet of options.
I just take my pick from an array of seemingly infantile yet instantly recognizable emoticons that breach linguistic barriers and cultural bottlenecks with consummate ease.
I embellish my text with the choicest smileys – tailor-made for a generation that dismisses ‘deep meaningful conversations’ as ‘DMC’s.
Sometimes, I wonder if there’s something deep in our being that makes us want to exchange symbols.
After all, before letters came along, we had motifs and figures scraped and carved onto cave walls.
The first written symbols began life as pictures. From pictograms (literal representations, eg, sun, cloud), we moved to logograms (symbols that stand-in for a word, eg, $) and ideograms (pictures representing an abstract concept, eg, person-in-a-wheelchair symbol).
Emojis can somewhat magically function as pictograms and ideograms at the same time.
They are changing the way we communicate, faster than linguists can keep with, or lexicographers can regulate.
‘It’s the wild west of the emoji era,’ said linguist Ben Zimmer. ‘People are making up the rules as they go. It’s completely organic.’
My penchant for using emojis isn’t all candy-floss. It has psychological endorsement too.
Psychologist Albert Mehrabian determined in the 1950s that only 7 percent of our communication is verbal (what we say), while 38 percent is vocal (how we say it) and 55 percent is nonverbal (what we do and how we look while we’re saying it).
This means that 93 percent of our communicative tools are negated when we are texting.
Enter the emojis. Studies have shown that they make us better communicators, and amplify our messages.
Sad emoticons make a written message seem sadder, while happy ones make it happier.
In certain ways, emojis are more powerful than words.
The ‘laughing face with tears of joy’ effectively evokes, in a single stroke, a complex emotional spectrum that might otherwise be lost in a string of words.
John McWhorter, a linguist, who teaches at Columbia University, says that men usually find emoji usage emasculating as emotions are perceived to be a woman’s domain.
Yet more and more men are bravely reaching out for an emoji where words either fail them or come up short – one finger on the ‘remove button’ as they do so.
Women, of course, use emoticons unabashedly, even wantonly. That’s because we wear our hearts on our ‘typing’ fingers.
And also because we have an 8-way superhighway to process emotions, while the poor boys just have a dilapidated country road.
A text message has an emotional flatness that is … well, flat.
Emojis infuse an oral quality, tonality, inflection, and an emotional texture that makes the same message dance with depth and delight.
Emoticons are a way of smiling in the face of limited time, and limited space, to let people know you are digitally happy.
Yet these little friendly guys aren’t without their share of controversy. For every die-hard emoji fan, there’s a venom spewing critic who could have them burn in hell with his fury.
David Webster, in an article, spews semantic venom on the popularity of emojis, calling them the most uninteresting, unfunny and uninventive of all the linguistic joys brought to us by the Internet. They typify an annoying persistence among adults to act like teenagers, he thunders.
Critics also argue that emojis signify a detached, dehumanized form of social existence – a glazed sucking of the cyber-thumb.
The guardians of grammar aren’t amused that after millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away.
Dyed in tweed intellectuals are bemoaning the death of literacy, fearing that the rise and rise of the emoticon threatens to catapult us back to the stone age.
Well, personally I am not a big fan of this Belt and Braces approach. I think that language is no more threatened by emojis, than stairs by elevators.
They can, at best, augment language – not replace it.
Moreover, you and I can’t stop language from evolving.
And if we can’t beat ’em, we may as well join ’em. What say?