Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year is a terrible choice, and it’s not because it’s an emoji

Let’s get this out of the way to begin with. Yes, Oxford Dictionaries probably decided to go for an emoji as its annual Word of the Year precisely so that people would talk about it. Fine, you win. Let’s play your game, dictionary lords.

Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year is a terrible choice, and it’s not because it’s an emoji

Oxford Dictionaries went with the image of “face with tears of joy” over other shortlisted words like “refugee”, “Dark Web” and “ad-blocker”. Yesterday a lot of internet harrumphers harrumphed about the choice, calling it everything from a hollow gimmick to a outright betrayal of trust in the sanctity of dictionaries.

Should an emoji have been chosen? The dictionary is clearly having a bit of fun and making an interesting statement about digital communication. As Oxford Dictionaries said in a blog post, 2015 has seen emoji use skyrocket. It’s a global form of communication, and while emojis aren’t technically words, they are pictographic symbols that have taken on a surprising amount of region-specific nuance in meaning over the years.

I don’t necessarily have an issue with Oxford Dictionaries deciding on an emoji, but I do think the choice of emoji is rubbish.

Oxford Dictionaries claims it chose the emoji because it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” This apparently equates to usage, with Oxford University Press and mobile tech business SwiftKey revealing that “face with tears of joy” was the most used emoji globally in 2015 – accounting for 20% of emojis used over the year in the UK.happy_face_tears

Firstly, the problem with this is that plucking the most used emoji shows a lack of understanding of emoji grammar. “Face with tears of joy” doesn’t tend to go on its own, and so giving it the crown because of usage is like giving it to “ha” on the basis on “hahahahahaha”.

Secondly, and more importantly: does “face with tears of joy” really reflect the mood of 2015? This is a year of the European refugee crisis, of the continuing threat of ISIS, of encroaching government surveillance powers, when the images that most stick in the memory of the year are dead children, destroyed cities and more recently the “Peace for Paris” symbol.homs_in_the_snow

(Above: The Syrian city of Homs in the snow)

Does “face with tears of joy” really cover those events? Could any emoji? If Oxford Dictionaries want to choose an emoji as the word of 2015, shouldn’t it be given the same editorial vetting as any other utterance?

Then again, perhaps Oxford Dictionaries are right. Maybe “face with tears of joy” really does encapsulate the mood – an almost manic longing for amusement and distraction – an expression that says, if we all stop laughing, we’ll all start crying.   

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