An Emoji for Word of the Year?

This is Oxford's Word of the Year.

More than words. 😂

The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2015 is 😂. It’s an emoji. The reaction to this news has varied from 😱 (it’s the death of language!) to 😏 (it’s a lame publicity stunt). Emojis are not words. That’s something Oxford itself agrees on, defining the word as “a single distinct element of speech or writing.” We don’t speak in emojis or write in emojis, at least not the old pen-in-hand way. But in real-world conversation, we don’t rely solely on words; body language is said to make up 55% of communication . So perhaps the emoji is the digital equivalent, enhancing the tone of our message beyond words. If so, is it possible to distill the huge gamut of complex human emotion into a series of comic faces?

And why the “face with tears of joy” emoji? Oxford said it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” Is this the same 2015 defined by climate change talks, terrorist attacks, and a migrant crisis? These seem at total odds. However, together with Swiftkey, a mobile tech company, Oxford found 😂 was the most frequently used emoji of 2015. Could it be our tears of a collective clown? Or perhaps it is no reflection of our moods at all. Instead, emoji-speak is a self-contained discourse and we tailor our conversations and emotions to fit its limits. And this is the crucial shift that Oxford has acknowledged with their choice.

Seeing comes before words.

Using images in communication is nothing new. The first sentence in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing proposes that we understand images before words. “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.” So the popularity of emojis in digital conversations is not so surprising. Perhaps it allows us to return to a pre-linguistic form of expression and understanding.

This return to the dialogue of images is clear from the rise in photographic platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Berger goes on to say that “It is seeing which establishes our place in the world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.” It’s always a challenge to explain our world with words. But even a photograph is taken from an angle chosen by the photographer. Emojis are constructed by a certain group of people and used by people in a certain way. They are not as pure and simple a medium as they appear.

A picture paints a thousand words.

Emojis are loaded with meaning beyond the sum of their parts. Almost a century ago, Ferdinand de Saussure, a pioneer in the field of linguistics, wrote that language is a system ofsigns, and words are only part of this system. For Saussure and other semioticians (studiers of signs), anything at all that forms meaning is language. Meaning is coded in so much, from the clothes we wear to traffic lights changing color.

A word is a string of letters that is assigned a meaning, and this meaning is arbitrary to the word. In English, the word for a canine is dog. In French, it is chien. But both words signify the same object. However, images have a more natural relationship to what the are signifying. A photo of a house reflects the image of the house. In this way, emojis can transcend words and be understood across all cultures.

However, as emojis increase in popularity, their meanings become more layered. Roland Barthes, critical theorist, explored these layers of meaning and the idea of connotation. He used the example of a dove. A picture of a dove is the sign, while the bird itself is what is being signified or denoted. We link the image of the dove with its connotation: the concept of peace. This is as arbitrary a relationship as words have with their meanings.

In emoji land, new connotations are emerging. For example, the eggplant 🍆, has become more than a picture of a vegetable. It is now the phallic emoji. And not to be used in the wrong contexts.

Liberation through limitation.

The limited choice of emojis is inextricably linked to their success and personalities. We are confined to the images available in order to express ourselves. How often do we actually laugh so hard that we cry? Probably not enough in real life, but apparently we are digitally hysterical. As Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, explained in announcing the decision, “Not only did we see a dramatic spike in usage of ‘Face with Tears of Joy,’ we felt the character captured a sense playfulness and intimacy that embodies emoji culture itself.”

The same images are reproduced over and over again, like emoji clichés or speaking through kitsch. Out on an emoji farm called Unicode in California, new crops of emojis are grown and their limits are established. Anyone is able to suggest new emojis to Unicode. Each proposal must include a case for the new creation and is then put to a committee who decides its fate.

The medium is the message.

This well-known phrase was coined in 1964 by communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Although the quote is often misunderstood as meaning that the vehicle is everything and the content is irrelevant, McLuhan actually meant something quite different. He used the example of a news story about a crime. The message, he says, is not the story itself, or the delivery, but the sense of fear that evolves from hearing the story. It’s noticing these “messages,” or shifts in culture (the “ground,” as he put it), that is crucial.

So perhaps Oxford Dictionaries, in naming an emoji as the word of the year, has noticed the McLuhan message—the shift in our discourse. Acknowledging this shift allows us to monitor and check the effect it may create, good or bad. Once viewed as juvenile and left to the kids, emojis have now been adopted by politicians. In a recent tweet, Hillary Clinton called for people to describe their feelings on student loans in three emojis. Even so, few politicians would use an emoji on a matter of serious public concern. Even Clinton’s emoji attempt received criticism for treating the topic of debt with flippancy. Emojis are light and playful, and can imbue an otherwise serious message with irony or wit.

Esperanto reincarnated?

It’s strange that these emojis, which have been around since 1999, have surged in popularity in 2015. This year, we have seen global political upheavals and threats, a huge migrant crisis, and the effects of climate change. But, as in any time of trouble or war, escapism is sought through art and culture. During World War II, musical films surged in popularity; Hollywood produced seventy-five musicals in 1944. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we are adopting this universal discourse in an effort to lighten the mood. The language of emojis allows us a certain tone that we cannot grasp through words or other imagery. And what’s more, in its transcending of cultures, emojis are a unifying language. This digital expression can fuse together cracks in failing traditional systems: a reincarnated Esperanto.

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Copyright 2016, Grammarly, Inc.

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A Harvard linguist reveals the most misused words in English

Some languages, like French, have an official body that decides how words can and cannot be used.

English, as a flexible, global language, has no such designated referee.

Therefore, there is no definitive answer to whether you’re using a word “correctly.”

It’s all a matter of taste and context. But there are opinions. And some count more than others.

Steven Pinker is probably as good an expert to ask as anyone. Helpfully, the renowned Harvard linguist and best-selling authorrecently wrote a book, titled “The Sense of Style,” that aims to help readers improve their use of the English language.

If you’re in the market for an update to , old Strunk and White, it’s probably a good buy. But if you just want to spot-check that you’ve not been making embarrassing language mistakes for years, a monster list of 58 commonly misused phrases covered in the book that recently appeared in the UK’s Independent newspaper is probably a good place to start.

Here are some highlights:

  1. Adverse means “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”
  2. Appraise means to “ascertain the value of.” It does not mean to “apprise” or to “inform.” Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
  3. Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise the question.” Correct: “When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting ‘German quality,’ but that just begs the question.”
  4. Bemused means “bewildered.” It does not mean “amused.” Correct: “The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused.” / “The silly comedy amused me.”
  5. Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”
  6. Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”] Correct: “This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.”
  7. Depreciate means to “decrease in value.” It does not mean to “deprecate” or to “disparage.” Correct: “My car has depreciated a lot over the years.” / “She deprecated his efforts.”
  8. Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”
  9. Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean “enormousness.” [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: “The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears.” / “The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.”
  10. Hone means to “sharpen.” It does not mean to “home in on” or “to converge upon.” Correct: “She honed her writing skills.” / “We’re homing in on a solution.”
  11. Hung means “suspended.” It does not mean “suspended from the neck until dead.” Correct: “I hung the picture on my wall.” / “The prisoner was hanged.”
  12. Ironic means “uncannily incongruent.” It does not mean “inconvenient” or “unfortunate.” Correct: “It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.” / “It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.”
  13. Nonplussed means “stunned” or “bewildered.” It does not mean “bored” or “unimpressed.” Correct: “The market crash left the experts nonplussed.” / “His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.”
  14. Parameter refers to a variable. It not mean “boundary condition” or “limit.” Correct: “The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates.” / “We need to work within budgetary limits.”
  15. Phenomena is a plural count noun — not a mass noun. Correct: “The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope.”
  16. Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are past participles–not words in the past tense. Correct: “I’ve shrunk my shirt.” / “I shrank my shirt.”
  17. Simplistic means “naively or overly simple.” It does not mean “simple” or “pleasingly simple.” Correct: “His simplistic answer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the material.” / “She liked the chair’s simple look.”
  18. Verbal means “in linguistic form.” It does not mean “oral” or “spoken.” Correct: “Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.”
  19. Effect means “influence”; to effect means “to put into effect”; to affect means either “to influence” or “to fake.” Correct: “They had a big effect on my style.” / “The law effected changes at the school.” / “They affected my style.” / “He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.”
  20. Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to “recline”; lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to “set down”; lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to “fib.” Correct: “He lies on the couch all day.” / “He lays a book upon the table.” / “He lies about what he does.”

It should be noted that while it’s always good to polish up your writing, one of the joys of language is that it isn’t fixed in time. It evolves. Nor is there a single “correct” style (in English, at least).

You’d neither connect nor impress if you chose your words like an Oxford don at a rap battle (though, actually, someone please make that YouTube video), and you’d be unlikely to get a job at an investment bank today speaking like Shakespeare.

Why is this important? It’s easy to get too caught up in being perfectly “correct” and become a tedious language snob. Remember you probably want to come across as intelligent and thoughtful, not uptight and pedantic. So don’t get so worked up over the little things that you miss the larger point of good writing — to communicate clearly and engagingly with your chosen audience.

What Does “The” Mean?

 IMAGE CREDIT:
THINKSTOCK/ERIN MCCARTHY

It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around 4 percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So this word “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, what does this word mean? It must mean something, right?

We can say, roughly, that “the” means the word it is attached to refers to a specific, individual object. When I say “I have the apple,” I mean a certain apple, not just “an apple”—any old apple, or “apples” in general.

But, of course, it’s not quite that easy. Sometimes “the” doesn’t indicate a specific object, but a whole class of objects. When you say you know how to play “the piano” or that exercise is good for “the heart,” there is no specific piano or heart you have in mind. “The pen is mightier than the sword” isn’t about specific pens or swords or even about specific instances of their metaphorical counterparts, acts of writing and acts of aggression.

“The” does not seem like a difficult word, but it’s very hard to explain to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Why do we say, “I love the ballet,” but not “I love the cable TV”? Why do we say, “I have the flu,” but not “I have the headache”? Why do we say, “winter is the coldest season,” and not “winter is coldest season”? For speakers of Russian, Korean, or any language that doesn’t have a “the,” these are important questions.

The only satisfactory answers are found, not in an explanatory definition, but in lists of situations where “the” is used. Such a list is what you find, in fact, if you look up “the” in the dictionary, something native speakers almost never do. Why would they? It’s not “anthropomorphism” or “jejune” or one of those words people need dictionaries for. But dictionary-makers are tasked with defining all the words people use, not just the glamorous ones, and sometimes the simplest words turn out to be the hardest ones to define. The entry for “the” on Merriam-Webster.com lists 23 places where it can go, among them “before the plural form of a numeral that is a multiple of ten to denote a particular decade of a century or of a person’s life <life in the twenties>” and “before the name of a commodity or any familiar appurtenance of daily life to indicate reference to the individual thing, part, or supply thought of as at hand<talked on the telephone>.” These uses are related to each other in a loose and complex way, but it’s impossible to pull out the single definitive meaning that underlies them all. You simply have to list them. And that list is the meaning.

The OED lists 50 entries for “the,” some of which are only historical relics. It was once correct to play “the chess,” to learn “the dressmaking” and “the mathematics,” and to read “the French,” all for “the posterity.” The “the” dropped out of those situations. The fact that it doesn’t go before those words anymore is also part of its meaning.

So the meaning of “the” is the combination of the situations where it is appropriate and the situations where it is not appropriate. This makes it quite different from straightforwardly definable words like “octahedron” (“a three-dimensional figure having eight plane faces”), but not much different from “different” or “see” or “now” or any of the everyday words we use all the time. We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them. Especially the word we use the most.

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