Oxford Dictionary announced its “Word of the Year” today, and for the first time ever, it’s not an actual word, but a pictograph—or as the kids call it, an emoji.

Laugh-cry emoji beats out “refugee” for Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Image 1.

The “face with tears of joy,” better known as the “laugh-cry face,” was chosen as “the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” It’s the icon you use when something is so real or shady or downright tragic, that you can’t help but make light of it.

To arrive at their decision, Oxford Dictionary partnered with the mobile prediction app SwiftKey to analyze user statistics for the most popular emojis across the world. The laugh-cry face came out on top because it was the emoji used the most globally in 2015, making up 20% of all uses the UK and 17% of those in the US. This corresponds to a similar surge in the popularity of the word “emoji”; although it’s been around since 1997, its usage more than tripled this year over the last one.

Other words that were shortlisted include “lumbersexual,” “ad blocker,” “Dark Web,” “on fleek,” “Brexit,” “sharing economy,” and “they” (when used to refer to a person who identifies as a non-binary sex). They’re all part of Oxford’s online dictionary, which features informal slang drawn mainly from various internet subcultures—though not necessarily in the official publication itself.

Speaking of the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015, “refugee” also got a spot on the list, but apparently, it was not “on fleek” enough, metrics-wise.

On a lighter note:

Laugh-cry emoji beats out “refugee” for Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Image 2.

Ben Macaulay

PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center specializing in tonal phonology and morphosyntax

I WAS ACTUALLY ALERTED TO THIS BY ANOTHER LINGUIST who does English internet linguistics and was elated to see this. It’s always good to see recognition of how people are actually using language. Instead of traditionally dictating what is English, dictionaries are now shifting towards a descriptive account of English based on actual usage.

This brings up the question of what the dictionary’s purpose is. It seems from the dictionary website as well as from the list of candidates that this “word of the year,” is for English words. This emoji is  not English and  not a word. As admitted by the dictionary’s writeup, the use of emoji is not language-specific. This is because they are non-arbitrary representations of real-world events.

This emoji neither originated in, nor is specific to English. The reason dictionaries exist is that languages have a finite set of representations with arbitrary ties to the real-world concepts they describe. We had to learn what “twerk” and “seapunk” meant because there is no connection between the articulatory gestures that produce them and the phenomena they describe. Even if we consider that languages borrow words from each other and have recurring loanwords like “computer” in unrelated languages, emoji are impressionistic and do not necessarily require representation in the lexicon.

Worse yet, emoji are not consistent in how they surface, for example across platforms. Readers of text with emojis may be receiving different information from emoji based on how they are presented. My old Android phone displays <3 as a robot head with heart-shaped eyes instead of a pink heart which is what appears on Facebook. Do these count as one emoji (because they are each the result of whatever impulse ends in me typing <3), or two (because they convey slightly different information)?

In this sense, emoji are not composed of consistent phonological categories, the same way words like “twerk” decompose to categories like /t/ that are signaled by the same phonetic cues by all speakers in the speech community. Because emoji do not have consistent surface representation and are not associated with specific speech communities, we have no evidence that readers of emoji gain the same information from different tokens of the “same” emoji. In this sense, emoji cannot be English words, as they can neither be English nor words.