one’s eggplant is the other’s erection

Sunday is World Emoji Day. A good time to reflect on the painful misconceptions that emoji cause – and how to avoid them.

Rufus Cain

You are a teenager, the school day is almost over and there is a message in the family app: ‘We have to have moussaakaaa tonight! ‘. storenow you can explain to your parent that the eggplant emoji is really only used as a euphemism for an erect penis.

Or: you are in the office, you ask a younger colleague via the app for a favor and instead of typing the word ‘please’ you close with that emoji with the puppy eyes 🥺. Laugh. Until hr addresses a little later and you learn that it ‘leading face’-emoji among young people represent begging about sex.

An emoji is worth more than a thousand words. The question is: what thousand? And how do you avoid a faux pas? To begin with, it is good to remember that emojis rarely mean just one thing.

Users give new meanings to emoji

“Many emojis are deliberately designed to have a flexible meaning,” says Neil Cohn, associate professor at Tilburg University. He himself has designed four emoji that have been in use since 2021: one that blows out a cloud, one that contains tears, one that consists of a dotted line and one that melts.

“Often users give emoji meanings that the creators did not even think of breath faceemoji is a good example. Smoke comes out of the mouth. We meant it like sighing, exhaling. But people also use it when they are literally talking about smoking. ”

Yet the melting smiley is by far his most famous work. New York Times published an article on melting faceemoji ‘as a visual surrogate for our collective malaise’. With the picture, Cohn thought of the feeling of being so uncomfortable that one would like to disappear. But for many people, it mainly symbolizes fear of climate change.

Meaning can be deduced from context

So how do you learn the different meanings? As you learn any language, Cohn says. “You may ask: what does that mean? If you use an emoji incorrectly, people will correct you or ask you what you mean. In addition, emoji are not used in a vacuum, you can often see the meanings from the context.”

In an app conversation between 40-year-olds, a thumbs up is simply a positive gesture. Generation Z (young people up to about 25 years) use their thumb a little, and quite sarcastically or passively-aggressively. And in conversation with a Greek or an Afghan, it can be an insult because the thumb in their countries is equal to the middle finger.

To better understand emojis, it helps to know where they come from: Japan. The term comes from the Japanese words for ‘image’ and ‘letter’ (not from ‘feeling’), and many emoji borrow their images from Japanese manga (comics) and anime (cartoons). This is where the eggplant comes from as a euphemism. In Japan, this vegetable does not easily lead to confusion because everyone who has read mangas at some point.

Young people recognize the images from Pokémon

Perhaps the Japanese origins partly explain why Dutch millennials and ‘gen Z’ere’ understand emoji well. Beginning in the late 1990s, anime such as pokemon and later Dragon Ball Z extremely popular with western children. They recognize the visual language.

So you have an emoji that consists of only four red crescents, which together form a kind of square: 💢. Not everyone will immediately realize that the image means ‘anger’. But in manga, veins are drawn on an angry face like this.

One feature of emoji that does not come from Japan is the ability to choose from different skin tones. For some people, this is one of the most difficult decisions when writing an app. Is yellow neutral and therefore safe? Or is it better to show color? And should it always be your color?

A white person with a dark thumb

Skin color emojis were invented in 2013 by a black Texan woman named Katrina Parrott. She wanted her daughter to be able to express herself well online and believed that yellow emoji symbolized white skin. Several thought so. After all, yellow emoji with hair was blonde, and in the animated series The Simpsons white people were also yellow.

Parrot’s invention was adopted by Unicode, the organization that sets the standards for emoji and any other characters you can type on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. All major technology companies are affiliated with Unicode as soon as the various emojis were everywhere.

Since then, opinions and even scientific studies have been devoted to who wears what skin color and whether it is okay. Can a white person use a dark thumb in solidarity with Black Lives Matter? And what if you look white but one of your parents is black, then you choose your emoji based on your looks or your family?

Adds more and more to represent everything

The last example is complicated, but in general there seems to be a simple rule of thumb from all opinions: If you do not accidentally want to offend anyone, use the option that is closest to your own skin color. Emoji designer Cohn agrees: “As a white man, I do not want to use black emoji”.

While he calls the spaciousness that skin tone emojis provide important, he regrets that they make emoji use less flexible. “The more you associate emoji with identity, the more you have to add to represent everything. I would prefer to see emojis that are so general that they are not racial and not even human.”

Until that day comes, any color emoji you choose will appear as a statement to some people. Gone are the days when you only had to wonder which emoji is a euphemism for horny.

Five more emoji with more meanings

The simple smiley should be neutral, right? Wrong, many Generation Z people use this as a sarcastic smile.

Tears of laughter, the most used emoji in the world and for that reason no longer cool among young people.

💀 With the same young people, you can with a skull indicate that you are about to die of laughter.

Two hands together, you might think it’s a high five. But this emoji stands for praying and is used primarily to communicate gratitude.

🥵 The little red face with the outstretched tongue. This is obviously one that is very hot. But it does not have to be because of the summer: one can also say that one is figuratively hot because someone is so attractive.

Also read:

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