Emoji Literacy, Face with Tears of Joy, Domino's, and Urban Dictionary

When I did my MA in Linguistics, I spent a year studying urbandictionary.com, a collaboratively authored online slang dictionary. While students and parents continue to use that resource as an arbiter of meaning for the evolving lexicon of the masses, emojis have since supplanted many slang words as daily topics for debate, but as with slang, emojis seem to evade codification.  Even Oxford Dictionaries 2015 word-of-the-year, the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji, did not produce universal understanding among my students.

"Face with Tears of Joy" emoji. Oxford Dictionaries 2015 word-of-the-year

Recently, when I asked my students to associate an emoji with the feeling they got when thinking about the American Dialect Society's 2015 word-of-the-year, singular they, they did not agree on the meanings for the various smiley faces.

Here is how students reacted when I queried them on polleverywhere.com. Notice where each student dropped their green pin (see what I did there with singular their?): sunglass face, smirky face, tongue-wag face.  Perhaps these are self-evident emojis, but others caused fierce debate. Is a droplet of water always a tear or always sweat or neither? Do emojis perspire due to emoji exertion or emoji despair?  Is there emoji existential panic?  Why do emojis fume with emoji nasal blasts?  Do purple devil emojis only get the benefit of two emotions?



Some distinctions in meaning are moot. Does the red face mean 'angry' or 'perturbed' or 'fuming'? Is a rosy-cheeked kissy face caused by puppy love or a passion more amorous?

But other emojis, my students demonstrated, demand scrutiny and debate.  Is an upturned smile always sinister? Is a flat mouth neutral -- that is, halfway between a smile and a frown -- or something else entirely?

To solve this mystery, I engaged -- of course -- Domino's Pizza.  In 2004, it was a student who turned me on to urbandictionary.com ("Mr. Damaso, you're in the dictionary.").  A decade later, two students came into class early to give me a playing card deck, a stack of cards imprinted with the Domino's logo depicting single emojis or sometimes strings of emojis with corresponding definitions and usages on the back.  I guess I'm turning to giant pizza retailers now for all of my pictographic standardization and codification needs.  Yes, there's the Emoji Dictionary and Emojipedia and Wikimoji, but I'm going with Domino's because Domino's.

Domino's reports on its companion website that demand was great for these decks, and they're all out. (Don't worry: You can still print your own.)  The deck promotes "Emoji Literacy," but in the end, of course, pizza sales become the clear objective of this promotion. Apparently, there are many ways to eat pizza and many reasons why.

 Left to right: 'hey girl, hey,' 'relaxing,' 'trying to work out,' and 'speechless.'

Here are a few of my favorites in the Emoji Literacy deck from left to right: 'hey girl, hey,' 'relaxing,' 'trying to work out,' and 'speechless.'