Emojis vs. emoticons

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Here's an emoji:  😻

Here's an emoticon:  :‐)

As we will see below, the superficial resemblance of the two words is completely coincidental — even though they both have to do with the visual depiction of emotions and ideas in texts.

This post began as a comment to "Emoticons as writing" (7/7/19), but it soon became too long and too complex to fit in a comment, so it now receives separate treatment of its own.

Basic definition and etymology for emoji:


n. pl. emoji also e·mo·jis
1. A standardized ideogrammatic icon, as of a face or a heart, used especially in electronic messages or on webpages.
2. Such icons considered collectively.
[Japanese : e, picture (from Old Japanese we, from Early Middle Chinese γwəjh) + moji, writing (from Old Japanese monji, moji, from Early Middle Chinese mun dzı̷h (also the source of Mandarin wénzì) mun, mark, writing (from Old Chinese , soot + -n, n. suffix, since Chinese ink is traditionally made from soot) + dzı̷h, symbol, character; see kanji).]

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.


emoji 絵文字 ("picture writing") = e 絵 ("picture") + moji 文字 ("writing") < mo 文 ("simple graph") + ji 字 ("complex graph") — there are other, more subtle and nuanced, explanations of the difference between mo / wén 文 and ji / zì 字, as in the research of Françoise Bottéro

etoki 絵解き ("picture explanation") = e 絵 ("picture") + toki 解き ("explanation")

emaki 絵巻 ("picture scroll") = e 絵 ("picture") + maki 巻 ("scroll")

OED citations for emoji:

1997   Nikkei Weekly (Japan) 27 Oct. 25/5   P-kies CD-ROM Emoji Word Processor software featuring more than 500 pictorial symbols has become a hit since it debuted July 11.

2001   Wired Oct. 74/1   Emoji..consists of tiny pixelated images that sub for words in mobile gossiping.

2005   A. Pashtan Mobile Web Services iii. 44   Another extension is the use of the emoji icon symbols.

2011   N.Y. Times (Nexis) 28 Apr. b9   If you've downloaded an app for emojis, those little happy faces and icons, you can add it to your list of keyboards in this panel.

The "face with tears of joy" emoji (😂) was chosen as Word of the Year 2015 by Oxford Dictionaries.

Basic definition and etymology for emoticon:


A facial glyph, used especially in email, texts, and instant messages and sometimes typed sideways, that indicates an emotion or attitude, as [ :-) ] to indicate delight, humor, or irony or [ :'( ] to indicate sadness.
[emot(ion) + icon.]

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

Thus, the word "emoticon" has an entirely different derivation than "emoji", being a portanteau of English "emotion" and "icon".

Dates for early occurrences of emoticon

From Ben Zimmer:

The most recent draft entry for "emoticon" in the online OED was published in June 2001. The earliest citation given in the entry is from April 1988:

1988   Logo Exchange Apr. 8/2   Funny faces, made of text characters, and seen when looking sideways, can punctuate sentences with humorous emotion. These symbol collections are also called ‘emoticons’… Emoticons are typically used in informal typed correspondence, such as electronic mail… Emoticon variations can reflect many different humorous themes… :-) humorous.. :-D smile!.. :-* oops!

However, that citation implies that the term was already known at the time. Here's an earlier example from Jan. 1987 in the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.amiga:

Jim Greenlee, comp.sys.amiga, "Mac vs. Amiga," Jan. 31, 1987
Can we PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE take this discussion elsewhere (I personally nominate talk.religion.really.stupid.meaningless.arguments.about.computers <- no emoticon – I'm serious, folks).

Merriam-Webster dates "emoticon" to 1987 in its current entry, likely based on this example. But since it wasn't presented as a new coinage, this can probably be antedated further.

Although "emoji" and "emoticon" are relatively recent coinages, they have both taken deep root in contemporary writing, culture, and consciousness.  Moreover — despite the fact that they clearly have distinct derivation — their propinquity of coinage, similarity of usage, and identity of the initial two syllables, plus (as pointed out in this comment to the previous post on this subject) the fact that many programs convert one into the other and consider them as interchangeable, all induce English speakers to confuse the two.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 4:20 pm

    I wonder if you are aware, Victor, that in some e-mail clients (mine is an example), the sense of the two is completely lost. Your "Here is an emoji" is followed by 😻, whilst your "Here is an emoticon:" is followed by a circular yellow "face" with two black-dot eyes and an upcurved mouth outline. Screen capture here. (http://hellenic-institute.uk/screen-captures/Fullscreen-capture-08072019-221440.jpg). All appears well in the browser, despite the fact that it and the e-mail client are tightly integrated and use the same rendering engine !

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 4:26 pm

    Sigh. Despite escaping the ampersand as <ampersand>amp<semicolon>, the string has nonetheless been rendered as an emoji rather than as text, so I'd better spell it out with spaces. Your "Here is an emoji: " is followed by <ampersand> <hash> x 1 f 6 3 b <semicolon> (without spaces)

    Let's see if that gets through any better …

  3. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 4:34 pm

    I was gonna say the same thing as Philip, except I was also going to say that that's only true in the email version of this post on my phone. When I click on the email to open my phone's browser, bother he emoji and emoticon are rendered correctly. IPhone 7 using Safari.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 4:40 pm

    And since my original comment has mysteriously disappeared, let me clarify that your "Here is an emoticon: " is followed in my e-mail client by a circular yellow "face" with two black-dot eyes and an upturned outline-black mouth. Both appear as intended in my browser, which is tightly integrated with my e-mail client and uses the same rendering engine.

  5. Alyssa said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

    I wonder if the term "emoji" would have taken off in English if it didn't coincidentally begin with "emo~". No way to know, of course, but I know for me it certainly made it easy to understand and adopt the new word.

  6. Miles Archer said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 6:51 pm

    I'm pretty sure we used emoticons in email while I was in college – must have been around 1984 or 1985. I doubt they were new then. They probably were invented at Dartmouth or MIT when the first time share systems came online in the 1960s

    Nope. 1980s. Found this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Fahlman

    They credit it to this guy in 1982 that sounds reasonable. I can't find anything to dispute it.

  7. Lars said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 7:08 pm

    Well, the Wikipedia article does state:

    "Though credited with originating the smiley emoticons, he was not the first emoticon user; a similar marker appeared in an article of Reader's Digest in May 1967.[10] In an interview printed in the New York Times in 1969, Vladimir Nabokov noted, "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket."[11]

    Also of note, emojis and emoticons can be (and are) interconverted, e.g. on Facebook.

  8. David Innes said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 7:45 pm

    I used to be able to find the original research paper, but when I was a contractor at Microsoft in the user education department in the early 1980s a research paper from Carnegie Mellon University was circulated about hostile interpretations of computer-delivered memos (early email) vs. handwritten ones. As I recall the research was funded by a grant from one of the big-iron companies of the day, who were interested in damping down the "flame wars" that sprung up over electronic messaging on shared-servers. (Email, discussion forums, direct messages.)

    The paper came to no hard conclusions about the original charter — just some speculation that perhaps handwriting conveyed more personality and/or that we were conditioned to perceive "printed" text as more serious, declarative, or authoritative. The paper contained a proposal to use text strings to convey emotion. The canonical was mentioned and I believe the :-) smiley may have been as well.

    Ironically, a few months later a very prickly coworker came storming into my office asking if I knew how to get a programmer attached to our group fired. My coworker had been having trouble recovering a critical document from a balky hard drive and the developer had given three possible solutions and then concluded with "or you could just reformat the hard drive :-)"

    I pointed out the smiley, which my coworker had been totally oblivious to, assuming it was "line noise" or, now that I think about it, perhaps a dismissive swipe at the keyboard by the programmer. If there had been blogging back then I'd have totally put the exchange on my blog — it was a classic case both of how people make the worst possible interpretation of text and… how emoticons aren't helpful if you have no idea what they're for.

    Goodness that was a long time ago.

    Wonder if one of the LL profs would have anything to say about differential emotional interpretations of printed vs handwritten communication. (Yes, I really would like to hear if there's been more recent actual research into the matter — I'll never forget how unnecessarily angry that coworker was!)


  9. Suburbanbanshee said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 9:08 pm

    Emojis were not pictures,.originally. They were the Japanese version of emoticons, made out of standard keyboard characters.

    Most of the little pictures that are not faces make no sense, and nobody seems to provide definitions, so I never use them willingly. (Finding out that the ice cream icon was supposed to depict feces was pretty disgusting, and I still don't get why people have some kind of hand icon between words of a sentence. Luckily I am not on Twitter, so I can ignore this stuff.)

  10. Zelda said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 2:16 am

    I'm with you on the incomprehensibility of emojis, Suburbanbanshee.

    I can tell you that the hand icons between words are the "emphasis clap…when you clap on every syllable of a statement you are making in order to underscore the very important content of that statement."

    This I know only because I read an old piece about it in Slate on Friday:

  11. Josh Reyer said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 2:22 am

    It might be noted that 絵文字 (e-moji) is simply the all-encompassing Japanese word for "pictograph", and that what is called "emoji" in English is technically referred to as "cell phone emoji" in Japan.

    Emoticons, particularly the Japanese ones like (^_^) to represent a smiling face, are referred as 顔文字 (kao-moji), "face-marks."

  12. AJ said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 11:34 am

    I’ve seen the word ‘kaomoji’ used by English speakers, but only to refer to lengthy sets like (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ (if you’re not familiar with that one, it’s a person so overcome by emotion that they’re flipping a table) and/or sets which rely on kana, like the shrug kaomoji ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ . Strictly online slang in English though, and only used by the kind of people who are willing to learn how to input katakana in order to get the perfect shrugging effect. (Which I can’t run down, that shrug is very expressive.)

  13. Maude said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

    The problem with emojis is when they are automatically translated into a character string as mentioned above. Design issues aren't catastrophic but Apple users (used to?) leave trails of Ps or Js, while character strings look like swear words from good old comics (unless you're able to read the individual codes, a little like shorthand really).

    The simple –> in Windows automatically turns into an nice bold arrow, but beware, all sense is lost when read on an iPad or other Apple device. Found out the hard way when I sent vocabulary notes to a French learner of English including this line: bite –> into a sandwich.

    Not sure what the arrow turned into but the lack of clarity compounded by the poor short-term memory of that student lead to a fight with his spouse as they were reviewing the day's notes. This humble and apparently perverse instructor received a call late on a Friday night to explain you know what…and clear her name.

  14. BZ said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 3:31 pm

    Wow, I was sure that the word "emoji" had something to do with emotions in that weird way the Japanese seem to adapt English roots to where they are almost unrecognizable (see Pokemon, anime [maybe], etc)

  15. Lars said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 4:41 pm

    @BZ no, there is also mojibake, containing the same root. This is when an incorrect mapping between character sets is applied, resulting in gibberish. It did not arise in Japan (there have been character sets since the beginning of time), but got its name there when the specialized computers that could process kana/kanji arrived on the market.

  16. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 5:54 pm

    Color me skeptical. It's my understanding that emojis evolved out of emoticons when text message providers began to substitute smiley faces for :-) and winky faces for ;-) and went on from there. If that's so, the notion that emoticon had no effect on the development of emoji would be a stretch.

  17. Thomas Rees said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 6:02 pm

    I subvocalise "mojibake" as something on the lines of /məʊdʒibeɪk/! I presume (hope) if I ever had to say it aloud I'd produce something more like もじばけ such as /modʒibakɛ/.

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 6:31 pm

    Look, the words 'emoji' and 'emoticon' may be unrelated, but that certainly doesn't mean the things i.e. the ASCII and pictorial representations, are. They are clearly expressions of the same nature and it would violate credulity to think they were developed independently without good evidence.

    I consider the words synonyms (whatever their etymology). Today, 'emoji' is the more used – but I don't think most people would make the distinction here desired between them.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  19. Josh Reyer said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    @Bloix – The first cell phone emoji set in Japan, designed in 1998 for Docomo cell phones, had almost no facial iconography, designed to illustrate things and places. They proved popular, so other Japanese cell phone companies imitated them and began adding more, leading to the wide variety we have today.

    Here is a Wired article that shows that first set:

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 5:20 am

    Andrew ("I consider the words synonyms (whatever their etymology). Today, 'emoji' is the more used – but I don't think most people would make the distinction here desired between them"). You are, of course, perfectly entitled to consider them synonyms if you wish, but just as with acronyms and abbreviations I personally refer to consider them different, and to endeavour to use each correctly. It is my view that each time we lost nice distinctions such as these, our language and our power of expression becomes ever more impoverished and we gain nothing in return.

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    It seems to me that, if enough people do use the word 'emoticon' for both, its meaning does indeed cover both. One cannot even claim the support of etymology for the distinction if, as Suburbanbanshee says above, 'emoji' also originally referred to the text versions.

    I often see 'emoticon' used for the pictorial version; I don't recall seeing 'emoji' used for the text ones, though I'm sure some people do use it that way. Possibly people are less likely to see a need for this term if they don't specifically want to distinguish the pictorial versions.

    As others have noted, which one sees can sometimes depend on which program one is using; so the difference between them can be seen as a difference between graphic representations of what's fundamentally the same symbol, like the distinction between capital and lower case letters, or perhaps between Roman and Gothic letters. It would be odd to say that these things were so different that we couldn't call them both 'letters'.

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

    When I do feel a need to distinguish them, I typically say "textual smileys" and "pictorial smileys".

    (In my usage, at least, all the ones depicting a face are "smileys", even if they don't smile; and I very rarely use any other sort.)

  23. V said,

    July 11, 2019 @ 9:18 am

    Andreas Johansson:

    Would you classify these as textual or pictoral?



  24. K said,

    July 11, 2019 @ 3:28 pm

    I view "emoji" as being the sort of modern "smileys" that are encoded by Unicode. So this ︎ is an emoji but this ☹︎ is not (although Wikipedia tells me that these are both emoticons and emoji…). And typing out :( is not an emoji and in my view, not even an emoticon, but simply a "smiley" (frown though it may).

    This may be a very idiosyncratic semantic division, in that I view emoticons as being the pictorial representations of smileys that were automatically substituted in old forums or instant messaging services. Emoji are a more modern concept for me, although I recognize that the distinction is fuzzy – when Facebook converts my :) into a picture, is that an emoji or an emoticon? If I type an actual smiling emoji from my phone keyboard and Facebook changes it to its version, is that now an emoticon or is it still an emoji? I view it as an emoji, but that's just me.

    Essentially, I view site or client-specific pictorial representations of text input as emoticons, while ones that are a one-to-one of the newer Unicode emoticons are "emoji." So the Slack headbanging parrot is an emoticon, because it is particular to Slack.

    I'm certain that the meanings of "emoji" and "emoticon" (and other uses like "smileys") will vary widely depending on which sorts of online communities you frequented and at what time. I never used emoticon as much in the past and tended to generalize them all as "smileys." But I find myself using "emoticon" more now in an effort to disambiguate between text-based smileys and the smileys used by particular forums or instant messengers that are not represented in Unicode (in other words, that don't translate outside of that particular environment).

  25. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 11, 2019 @ 3:37 pm


    I guess they're textual, but in the unlikely case I ever find myself talking about them again I'll probably speak of them as "PLATO smileys" as a third category.

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