The eagerly anticipated Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2015 has been announced. And it is: . That's the emoji officially known as "Face with Tears of Joy," but you may know it as something like "laughing so hard you cry."
Reactions to the announcement have varied from to to to to :P to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Some people think the lexicographers at Oxford are trolling the sticklers. (They may be right.) But the big question is: Is even a word?
We can use it in writing just like a word: We can put it anywhere we can put interjections such as tsk or huh or haha or meh or, for that matter, headdesk, all of which are words. And we can put it in some places where we can put other kinds of words, too. But if it is a word, how do you say it? And what kind of word is it?
The standard view is that written language represents spoken language, which we think of as those things we say that we can diagram in a sentence and define in a dictionary. But spoken communication is just one kind of gesture in a whole spectrum. It just happens to be the easiest kind to pin down and strictly define — partly because we've put the most effort into doing so with it. And the words in sentences are far easier and more obvious to write down than the other parts. So we use a few marks such as ! to try to convey tone, and otherwise it's just what we can write with letters and a few symbols. We have managed to leave out all the facial expressions and gestures we make.
Until now. Now, at last, gestures other than speech are beginning to get the same treatment as speech. Since 1982, when Scott Fahlman proposed :-) for use in plain text messages on a Carnegie Mellon digital message board, we have had a codified way of putting a smile in print to indicate a friendly or humorous attitude, and the meaning of :-) in a message is no harder to define than that of OK. (And, just as we like to simplify spelling of words when we can get away with it, we have simplified the spelling of :-) to :) because why not.) More emoticons have followed since, expanding with the addition of Unicode character support. And, since their invention in Japan in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, we have had emoji.
In every case, the emoticons and emoji are representing an existing codified gesture — a smile, a scowl, a shrug, a scream — or an object that has a name. We know exactly what ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ stands for. We've done it many times ourselves. The definition of it in a dictionary would be a fraction of the length of the definition of a word such as set or well. It wouldn't be exactly the same as the definition of shrug, though — it has the element of the smirk or half-smile, and we're not referring to shrug, we're performing a shrug, on paper. It's like words such as boom or splat that are intended as partial performances of the sounds they mimic.
Once we have a way of putting gestures in print, we get a feedback effect. Consider LOL. It stands for "laughing out loud" and originally communicated that the person was doing just that — or at least would be doing that if they were talking rather than typing. But in text, it becomes its own thing: We can pronounce it, use it as a noun (even if just for LOLs), reduplicate it (LOLOLOL). And so it feeds back to speech as something more complicated than what it first was. So too with .
True, doesn't use actual letters. But neither does 7 or &, and both of them stand for words. And true, we don't pronounce . But we do gesture it. And we can play around with it and use it as different kinds of words. Here are some kinds of words can be:
Interjection: This is how we usually use it: Like tsk, huh, haha, and so on, it can be an expression all on its own — filling the same kind of slot as a whole sentence, but without noun or verb, just to express an attitude. Why write I am in tears laughing (which uses 21 of the 140 characters Twitter gives you) when you can just put ? For emphasis you can use more than one — just like tsk tsk tsk or hahaha.
Sentence adverb: We could say that emoticons and emoji serve as sentence adverbs, conveying an attitude to the utterance as a whole, like frankly in Frankly, I don't care. But we normally put them at the end of a sentence — I don't care :P — which is an optional but less common placement for sentence adverbs, and we'd use a comma in I don't care, frankly but probably not in I don't care, :P. We can put them at the start of a sentence — That's ridiculous! — but notice how we may put a capital on the next word? It suggests we're really treating them as separate expressions, like Hahaha! That's ridiculous! We also don't seem to use them much as other kinds of adverbs: He ran down the street or That's crazy!
Adjective: We can use them like What's up with the face? but that's not very common. We may be more likely to use them predicatively: I'm feeling really about that.
Noun: We can write I got a lot of out of that. But we probably won't pluralize it: no How many s did you get out of that?
Verb: There's no big problem with If he does that I am going to . But we can't easily conjugate it. It likely looks wrong to put He really a lot or Yesterday he all evening.
But no matter how we use in sentences, we still can't pronounce it! It's true that spoken language is just one kind of communicative gesture, and it's not the only kind that can be clearly codified and defined — we have quite a lot of hand gestures and facial expressions that are no less clear than words — but we have always kept the word word for the kind of gestures that can use speech sounds.
So is it time we changed that? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Oxford already has.