Emoji History Series ⏳


Because this is a blog about all things emoji, it would be incomplete without a history of emoji and how we got here. It is well known that emoji owes a lot to its Japanese heritage but what of the sacred carvings that arose at the dawn of Sumerian civilization and their natural evolution to money-with-wings emoji 💸 marking successful drug deals on Venmo 💊 💉 ✅ ? In the following series, I will identify major milestones that have contributed in some way to our understanding of the semantic wonder that is emoji!


The Complete Emoji Texting Guide for Every Age📱💬👶🏼👧🏼👩🏼👵🏼


I read an enlightening Rupert Murdoch publication where a mom kept sending phallic emoji to her son in doting texts, and he was understandably very confused. This is the kind of emoji faux pas that inspires coke-addled fantasies and cinematic prowess alike.

Rather than berate well-meaning emoji beginners with traditional advice, this tutorial attempts to bridge the generational gap by suggesting useful emoji texts for every decade of life. They range from humorous to downright depressing. Maybe we really do get wiser with age…

My initial inspiration came from Diana Hill’s incredible emoldji to better reflect what people over 50 would like to express using the medium.


Getting Away with Everything

😖 🍒 🍼  Bartender, more milk!

🙆🏼 🍭 HOLD ME!

😪 💤 🛏 😩 🤒 😭 Finally going to bed? Don’t get too cozy. I just started crying again!

⚠️ 💩 👬 💸 🤔 📓 Mess up potty training and you will alter the course of my psychosexual development forever

🎮 🕹📱Let me play with the iPad real quick

🕴 🍰🕯🕯🕯🕯 Can I have a valet for my 4th birthday?

📖  💉 😡 🔪 If you read me one more Brothers Grimm story, I’ll worship David Cronenberg

🔚 👶🏼 👧🏼 📸  💻 🌎  Posting embarrassing photos of me on Facebook qualifies as child abuse.


Prepare to Cringe

⤴️ 🆙 TURN UP!

🔪 🐝 SLAY


👨‍👩‍👧  Fam

💅🏼 👯 💁🏼 Basic

🔥 💯 It’s lit!

👍🏼 ✅ 👌🏼 That’s ode gucci

🚬 🍃  💨 ✌🏻 🍍  🚀 🌁   We cyphed and got totally smacked

💬 🙇🏻 👻🖕🏼👋🏼 I curved him and dubbed his sh@#/Nope out!

💩 📲 Mupload that ish (middle-aged Buzzfeed writer variation)

👟 💰 Swag money (either going through midlife crisis: see 40s section, or 12-year-old boy on Instagram)

😜 👊🏻 🍔 🍕🍦 YOLO (ironically)

🙌🏻  🆒  On fleek! (ironically)

😻 💘 Bae (so 2013)


More Growing Pains

🤓 🔩 📄 💩 🚽 😱 Screwed for finals

🆘 🍹🐸 😒  Come save me, I’m at the bar!

📺 👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩 🛌❓ Netflix and chill?

👊🏻🚪 👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩 ✂️ 👅 🌮 ‼️ Knock before entering #LUG

🍸🍸🍸💃🏻 😷 🚗 😵 😴 😳 Just barfed in my Uber

🙄☝🏼🔮 I told you so!

🐫 😈 😏 🐳 💦 THIRSTY

😋 🍕 📺 ME TIME/Cozy night in

🍑 👖 🤳 I’m feeling myself in these jeans

💳 🏫 🎒 💸 😣 🏦 Broke AF

🚷 🏠🖕🏻 I’m so over having roommates

🙇🏻 😩 💍 Everyone I know is getting married!

📑 👰🏽 👶🏼 💀 🤕 🤒 Am I gonna be okay?


The IDGAF Years Part 1 #Adulting

👆🏽⬅️ 📱❌ 👨🏻 Swipe left!

📅 🔚 🤔 📝 😭 ➡️ 🤗 😄 👏🏻  Finally done with therapy. Ready to live my best life!

⛔️ 👶🏼🌱 🏥 👩‍⚕️ Mom, I’m not ready to have kids. My houseplant is dying!

👋🏻 🐴  🕳 Maybe I don’t need a Mr. Darcy?

📴🖕🏻🌎 No FOMO

🆕 🛋 Will you pick new furniture with me from somewhere that’s not IKEA?

💋 😻 😊 💞 I accept myself completely, just as I am. I accept myself completely, just as I am. I accept myself completely, just as I am…

🥃👨🏼 🎞  ➡️ 🍷👴🏽 📊 🐻 Trading vodka cranberry for a single glass of red wine and Theo James for a socially-inept accountant with dad bod.

💁🏻 💄 👚 👢 👛  👀 ⏰ 🖥 I’ve finally found my personal style after countless man-hours of browsing Pinterest and Instagram.

⛔️ 👗 👡 🌺 🌸 💐 🤳 📲 Coachella? I’m too old for that sh!#


Behold the Midlife Crisis. Terribly Depressing!

📈 🤑 📉 It’s the economy, stupid!

👉🏻 🐕 🏈 Can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

💔 💍 😡 😫 😤 BRB marriage in shambles and everything is a lie

⛔️ 👁 🍽 🍷 🙍🏻 🚬 👒 Mother, I do not need a blind date. Particularly not with some verbally incontinent spinster who drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, and dresses like her mother.

🌃 🏡 💤 I don’t want to stay out too late

🛅 💼 💪🏽 More baggage than a 747/ Paris Hilton in the Riviera/a drag queen on a road trip

⛹🏻 🏋🏼 🚴🏼  Fighting slowing metabolism with a gym subscription

🛡 🗡 🌐 As I got older I looked at the world and I realised, we need armour.


Midlife Survivor Aftermath

👴🏻 👵🏼💲🏪 🛒 🛍 💺 🚌 🚅 Senior discounts, here I come!

😼 😎 👵🏼  😉 Sorry, I’m too old! (translation: I don’t wanna!)

😜 👧🏻 👦🏼 😠 Youth is wasted on the young

👨‍👩‍👧 👍🏻 The kids are alright

💿 🎵 🎶  ⏹ 😒 Who in their right mind would listen to this crap?

👤 👀 🙅🏻 🍑 🔍 👨🏻 The invisible cloak of old age keeps sexual harassment away

🖕🏻🏡 🕵🏻 I don’t give a hoot what the neighbors say!

⏳ 🕑 🕓 🕖 🕘 🗓 Back in my day…

🙁 😬 🤷‍♂️😪 💭❓I wish I could remember that far back. What was your question again?


Introspection and Arthritic Fun

👵🏼 🇺🇸 ✊🏻 The kids have families of their own now… Maybe I’ll run for president.

👣 😞 🤕 My arthritis is acting up again

🎰 💸 👪 🍬 BRB spending the kids’ inheritance money like there’s no tomorrow

😙 👨‍👦‍👦 🎤 🎸 🤦 How was your One Dimension concert, honey?

🌏 👥 🎨 💟 We’re all works of art in progress

👴🏻 👔 💼 Why should I stop working? If I do, I’ll die and it’ll all be finished.

👵🏼 🙃 The trick in life is learning how to deal with it.

👵🏼 📔 If you’re going to do a memoir, then it’s sort of at this age – in your late sixties or seventies – that you do it. I don’t understand people who do memoirs when they’re 20.

👵🏼 🤝 👩🏻 💝 The hardest period in life is one’s twenties. It’s a shame because you’re your most gorgeous and you’re physically in peak condition. But it’s actually when you’re most insecure and full of self-doubt. When you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s frightening.


Personal Transformation and The IDGAF Years Part 2

👄 😬 🙏🏻 Bring me my set of teeth, will you?

💭 💊 Don’t forget my memory meds!

👵🏼 👴🏻 🌏 😝 ⁉️ Let’s all get demented!

☀️ 🎲 🀄 📝 🏌 ❓ U up 4 a game of Backgammon/mahjong/bingo/golf?

👵🏼 💪🏻 😇 I’m not giving in to anyone else’s idea of how I ought to feel and look at 70. ‘Retirement’ is not a word I can even visualize.

👀 👥 🤷 👵🏼 You can’t control how other people see you or think of you. But you have to be comfortable with that.

😔 📚 We tell ourselves stories in order to live

👧🏻 👦🏻 🖕🏻 😈 If I’d had children and had a girl, the first words I would have taught her would have been “f*** off” because we weren’t brought up ever to say that to anyone, were we? And it’s quite valuable to have the courage and the confidence to say, “No, f*** off, leave me alone, thank you very much.”


Achieving Digital Fame by Being a Cool Grandma

👵🏼📱📷  Time to reinvent myself as an Instagram celebrity!

🗣👂🏻🔇 Do I think what, hon?

🖥 🎭 I think most people are actors. There’s fakery going on, don’t you think?

👵🏼 🤘🏻 😝 ✌🏻 😎 I’m not an old person. I’ve never been an old person. I just do my thing.

👵🏼 👩🏻 🤳 📲 I think that high school kids and college kids and even grade school kids know who I am and want pictures with me. Why? Because they all want me to be their grandma! They also want to be like me when they get to be my age.

👵🏼 👴🏻 💖 👦🏼 👧🏻 Oh, I just love young people. I’ve got young people around me all the time.

👙 🍒 🆙 👆🏻 🙅🏻 🌍 ⬇️ If you’re over a certain age, you’d better keep your bra on because nothing’s worse than saggy duds

🚫 ⚰ 🙌🏻  🍾 😆🎈 🎁 🎉 🎊  I don’t believe in funerals. I believe in celebrating life, and showing people, while they’re alive, how much I care about them


Social Disapproval and Bitter Snobbery

😧 🚰 💦 🌊  🍉 ☕️ 🚾  I suffer from dehydration and I know what awful things it can do.

🙅🏻 👀 👥 💭 🍳 🌯  I don’t look at social media or think about what I had for breakfast, it’s ridiculous.

⛔️ 🍷 🍣 🍿 🎥  ⌛️ I haven’t dated in 68 years.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 🤖 🙅🏽 Everybody today is like a robot, and I don’t want to be part of that.

🚓 🚗 🗽 🏙  ❄️ 🌨 ☃️ 🚶 🚶 🚶 🚶 If you walk down the street in New York in the winter, all the young ladies look alike.

🙎🏽📱 ➡️ 🐚 People seem to live vicariously through other people and other things, and that’s why they are all becoming empty shells.

😿 😕 🙍💀 You hardly meet anyone with a soul anymore


Becoming a Treasure Trove of Wisdom

📰 🎂 🤷 I don’t care about my birthday one bit!

👋🏼 💁🏽 Bye Felicia

⛔️ 🐱 💦⚱ Don’t let the cat piss in my ashes

☠️ ⚰  What is Iron Maiden, sweetie?

🔑 🏃🏻‍♀️ 🍆  My secret to a long life has been staying away from men. They’re just more trouble than they’re worth.

🏋 🍴 🍲 ❌ 💒 👰🏻  Get plenty of exercise, eat a nice warm bowl of porridge every morning and never get married.

😫 😴 🕐 🕒 🕔 🕙 I am tired and take naps as many times as I can

🍷🍫 I have always loved a glass of sherry and good food. My favourite is chocolate blancmange

👨‍👨‍👧‍👧 👨🏻 👩🏽 👴🏻 Having adult children makes you look 100 years old. I don’t want that.


1963 – 1982: Smiley Face, Emoticons, and Japanese Kaomoji 🙂☺︎🇯🇵¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Tyler Schnoebelen, a Stanford linguistics Ph.D., explains that we are only just learning how to convey the speed of talking through written word, without physical contextual clues, and emoji can go beyond representing simple internal states to creating interactive variants and propositions for readers. Furthermore, given that 7% of communication is verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% nonverbal according to a seminal study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, we are effectively losing 93% of our communicative potential. Even Nabokov, arguably one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, acknowledged as early as 1969 the need for emoji: “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.”



And so, before our current assortment of skeumorphic emoji designs filled the void of cold, screen-based interaction, we had the classic Smiley 🙂 An ad man named Harvey Ball created the original yellow smiley face symbol as part of a 1963 campaign to boost company morale for State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, MA. He was paid $240 for the design and slogan “Have a Happy Day,” including $45 for the rights to the image. The image was never copyrighted by either Ball or State Mutual.

The smiley face symbol was quickly appropriated from early-70s to late-80s acid house culture and soon became a ubiquitous symbol in pop culture. Bernard and Murray Spain, two brothers who owned Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, sold over 50 million buttons based on the classic smiley design by 1971. French journalist Frank Loufrani registered the trademark as Smiley World in 1972 and launched a smiley T-shirt licensing company which today makes more than $130 million annually.


As with the marginalia of the medieval century, the Smiley’s “fixed facade of childlike contentment (…) was ripe for subversion.” Early political statements using the smiley include the Dead Kennedy’s 1979 album California Uber Alles, with its Nuremberg-style rally with Smileys instead of swastikas, and blood-stained smiley face motifs pointing to a dystopian world of depressed superheroes in the comic Watchmen. The Smiley took on political undertones as a “visual metaphor for a narrative that examines guilt, failure, megalomania and compromise with a corrupt power structure.” It became a staple of “Corporate Rock Whores” Nirvana T-shirts in the 90s and ecstasy PSAs denouncing youth culture alike.


Scott Fahlman, creator of the smiley face emoticon

The first digital emoticons were smiley faces created by Carnegie Mellon computer Scientist Scott Fahlman in 1982. The sideways smiley face 🙂 was invented out of a need to distinguish serious messages on the online bulletin boards, or bboards, used by the university in the 1980s.The first emoticons were used as “joke markers” after someone posted a fake mercury spill message. The word emoticon is a portmanteau of “emotion icon,” and it is defined as a typographic display of a facial representation, used to convey emotion in a text only medium. Emoticons are distinct from emoji because they use characters from the Latin alphabet whereas emoji require specific encoding and designs vary cross-platform.



Kaomoji were independently invented in Japan around the same time as emoticon and use the fuller character set to create facial expressions from punctuation marks. The word Kaomoji 顔文字 means “face letters.” The first kaomoji was (^_^) and appeared in a Japanese forum in 1986. Kaomoji are an extension of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture influenced by manga and anime, with a greater focus on eye expressions than mouth. They range from the simple (*_*) to complex designs like (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧. or ಠ_ಠ or even (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻  and it is estimated that there are over 10,000 of them.

One of the most popular kaomoji is the shrug


Kaomoji and emoticons arose from the need to communicate intent more clearly on message boards. A complete list can be found here.

1041-1450: Printing Press 🖨


Long before all the tech jobs were outsourced to India, scribes experienced an early instance of creative destruction with the advent of the printing press. In 1041 AD Bi Sheng brought movable type printing technology to China, and by 1450 it had been improved on by Johannes Gutenberg. Hand-lettering was replaced by character serialization, a data format that could be stored and reused, and language was reduced to its most basic components: graphemes, phonemes, and punctuation marks. As mentioned in my emoji prehistory post, a grapheme is the smallest unit that makes up a word. Graphemes are written representations of phonemes (groups of 2, 3 or 4 letters), and phonemes are the smallest units that make up a sound. In the English language, for instance, there are approximately 44 phonemes.


Because English today is based on phonograms, or symbols that represent spoken sound rather than concrete images, it may seem counterintuitive that we find ourselves in the throws of a digital pictographic obsession when the emoji fad has very much ended in its country of origin. So how did the appropriation of Chinese kanji symbols and the phonetic system pave the way for an army of delightful cartoonish symbols? How has emoji grown to supplement our bland English vocabulary?

1320 – 1340: Medieval Symbolism and Manuscript Marginalia 🎨 📜

Sometime between 1320 and 1340, the psalms collection Luttrell Psalter was commissioned by Geoffrey Luttrell in England. It is notable for containing paintings with vivid colors and inventive decorations accompanying the text at the margins, often contrasting their austere subject matter, known as manuscript marginalia. Manuscript marginalia contained a great deal of detail and often provided images that ranged from subtly humorous to downright bizarre. Some examples are “wrestlers, hawkers, bear baiters, dancers, musicians, throwing games, a mock bishop with a dog [jumping] through a hoop- and a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod” and what was then known as the “grotesques”: hybrid creatures that combined a human head with an animal/fish/bird body and plant tail. 👨🏽 🐡 🌿

luttrell.jpgIt is within medieval images that we find the first inklings of rich symbolism, word associations and hidden meaning. For instance, floreat, which meant “to flourish,” was represented with a blooming rose 🌹 in the psalms. Similarly, nocte, or “night,” 🌃 is followed by a black bat 🦇 in the margin. This gave the text a mnemonic purpose which made the manuscript “memorable and meditative.” Aside from mnemonic function, however, scholars cannot agree on whether the marginalia were purely decorative or had symbolic meaning. As with emoji, marginalia served as a shorthand for ideas, and especially grotesque or obscene images were interpreted as a kind of satire 🎭 and subversion of the human condition.

12,000 – 2700 BC: Paleolithic cave paintings, Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and Chinese logograms 🗿⛏✍🏻🈷️


Emoji have been extensively compared to a modernized version of Paleolithic cave paintings, estimated to be over 17,300 years old. Homo sapiens emerged on the African landscape 200,000 years ago but, leaving behind no archaeological record of the brain nor the development of our cognitive abilities, we look to abstract artistic relics to determine how our wiring has changed over time. The pictograms of horses and stags found at Lascaux were the first real shift in using visuals to represent larger abstract ideas, purportedly memorializing past hunts or shamanic ritual instruction, along with 32 geometric shapes ranging from dots to circles. Despite the low number of geometric shapes created over the span of 30,000 years, each symbol had a distinctive usage pattern.


Paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger explains that stenciled hands appear at less than 20% of the sites and were very common before fading out of use at the end of the Ice Age, while dots and lines appear less than 75% of the time. Tectiforms (roof-shaped symbols), however, only appear in the Dordogne and Huesca regions of France between 13,000 and 17,000 years ago and seem to have been a clan sign used regionally only. The fact that the symbol is not found anywhere else points to either a trade network for goods such as flint or obsidian between the two places or a tribal relocation, perhaps through intermarriage. The significance of the Paleolithic comparison is in the experimentation with visual marks which enables us to create a new kind of typology.



Fast forward to 5,500 years ago, the Sumerians created the cuneiform writing system to communicate using pictographs. Cuneiforms use a wedge-based tool or reed to mark wet clay. Dr. Kate Wiles of the excellent linguistics podcast Allusions explains that initially, the language was used for tracking bartering of livestock and the yearly agricultural harvest. Wiles gives the example of shipping three cows, a goat, and a bale of hay, and knowing that they arrived at the other end by using the shorthand system. Eventually, graphemes, the smallest units of written language, became more abstract and helped expand our means of self-expression, much like emoticons were combined creatively to form new meanings. The Sumerian cuneiform system was in use for 3,000 years, on par in cultural significance with the Roman alphabet.


Perhaps the greatest historical analog to emoji has been the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, which is the subject of multiple uninspired articles by anxious journalists insisting that we are evolving backwards and we ought to stick to the language of Shakespeare. Bangor University linguist Vys Evans explains that “as a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop.” Hopefully that will serve as some reassurance that if we have eclipsed Egyptian civilization, surely we can’t be too far in the perceived regression spouted by hyperbolic emoji detractors…


The comparison to ancient hieroglyphics, as with the Mayan hieroglyph system used from 250 BC to the 1500s, is inevitable in that they rely on a series of small symbols to express a complete idea rather than phonetic sounds, and their emotional and cultural assessment is subject to interpretation. Mayan hieroglyphs were used to convey historical, literary, religious, and mythological information, as well as a complex mathematical knowledge. Fittingly enough, the Unicode Consortium has been awarded the Script Encoding Initiative grant to include Mayan hieroglyphs as Unicode characters by 2017.


Finally, emoji is similar to written Chinese and its pictorial origins spanning 3,500 years. By 1,000 BC, around 3,000 characters had been created primarily to record oracle predictions on turtoise shells and cow bones. Some Chinese characters which were later adapted to Japanese were visually modeled on familiar objects, most notably 木 (ki) which is a pictograph of a tree, 人 (hito) which looks like a person from the side, and 山 (yama) which shows a series of mountains.

To conclude, emoji is a logogramatic system, where a concept rather than a sound is represented pictorially, with comparable historical examples ranging from the Stone Age cave paintings and Sumerian cuneiform to ancient hieroglyphics and the Chinese written system.