I’m an emoji user. An enthusiast, even. I was stoked to get the taco and can’t wait for the butterfly. When emoji people of color debuted, I held down the gray alien fully expecting a green option (but no). I’ve sent vengeful “peace outs” to exes and used a string of “dead” emoji faces with Xs for eyes to call in sick. So you’d think I’d be happy about Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 Word of the Year, the “face with tears of joy,” but I’m conflicted because I don’t think that’s what it means.
Oxford’s Word of the Year has recently hinged on our digital lives. In 2009, it was “unfriend,” and since then we’ve done a lot of unfriending based on annoying “selfies” (2013’s WotY), cat “gifs” (2012) and “vape” videos (2014). In 2011, Oxford chose “squeezed middle”—referring to struggling average earners—and in 2010 it was “refudiate,” Sarah Palin’s cringe-worthy conflation of two smart-people words. To which 2015’s WotY emoji would be a great reaction, because I’ve always taken it to mean “hilarious” or “laughing until you cry.”
Whatever its meaning, the honored emoji’s popularity skyrocketed this year, rising from 9 percent of all U.S. emoji use in 2014 to 17 percent today. And while we do have reasons to shed tears of joy—social reform sparked by university protests, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the man bun’s imminent death—a dictionary choosing a pictogram that’s open to interpretation is ironic. Dictionaries, by definition, define. “You may know it by other names,” Oxford’s 2015 announcement says of the icon. Okay ... or you may pick a word with a concrete meaning.