The word of the year is an emoji—and I'm not happy about it

"The 'face with tears of joy' is a pictograph and isn't even in the dictionary. Those of us who care about language should gather and have a moment of silence."

face_with_tears_of_joy
Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2015.

I’ve always been a sucker for year-end lists—all of those music video countdowns on TV and Top 100 lists published in magazines. But as a writer, I’m most curious about the “word of the year.”

These words are determined by Oxford Dictionaries. This year, the dictionary publisher partnered with SwiftKey, a mobile keyboard technology company. And the end result? The “face with tears of joy” emoji (also known as the LOL emoji) was named the “word” of 2015. It was the most used emoji worldwide in 2015 and made up nearly 20 percent of all emoji use in the US and in the UK. Oxford Dictionaries explained the choice in a blog post, writing that, “[It] was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.”

I trust Oxford Dictionaries; I worked with it in publishing school and I rely on it for the bulk of the editing work that I do. But why would the little yellow face with blue tears possibly be considered a word? (The”face with tears of joy” is a pictograph and isn’t even in the dictionary.) Those of us who care about language should gather and have a moment of silence.

What exactly makes a word the most important of the year? Is it the latest popular turn of phrase? Is it actually the most frequently used word in everyday conversations? In 1992, the American Dialect Society (ADS) announced their word of the year was “Not!” (yes, including the exclamation mark), while in 1999 it was “Y2K.” Some other examples from the past: 2003 was the year of the “metrosexual” and 2012, the year of the “#hashtag.” The word of the last decade, according to ADS, was“google,” used as a verb. Each of these words represent a specific time and place. And now, surely, that little yellow face will serve to remind us that 2015 was the year of emojis and their rapid rise in popularity.

That being said, I’d love to see society place more value on language. I’d much prefer the “word of the year” to be an actual…word. Even if it is a slang term or a pop culture reference, at least choose real words to mark the year that was. I was recently thinking about Oxford’s announcement in the context of how we teach words to kids. I’m not in favour of policing language (in fact, I’m quite against people enforcing “proper use of language” when it comes to our kids), but I do see value in having kids care about language. A wide vocabulary (and not just a simple emoji) is important in helping them learn to explain their emotions and experiences.

It seems that, over time, we’ve devalued the written word. How else to explain why 2015 became the year of “face with tears of joy”? And yet, technology has brought us out of the era of “gr8″ and “c u l8r” and other shorthanded texts. I read articles every few months that inform me print book sales are on the rise again—and, to me, this means people still want to consume written words. But for every article like that, I hear a story about how toddlers are trying to swipe the pages of printed books to turn them. This isn’t a print versus digital debate—it couldn’t be, seeing as it’s written on this blog—it’s more a question of what parents, on a large scale, could be doing differently to highlight the importance of words to their kids. Should we start with an emoji of a dictionary? (No.)

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a five-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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