Yesterday I wrote about my how much I'm anticipating the American Dialect Society's "Word of the Year." Some of the commenters on that article said that "intersectionality" and "microaggression" would be good contenders for this year, and I heartily agree. Though the word "intersectionality" was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw back in the '80s, it's since risen to prominence among those who seek to describe the many shades of discrimination in a given scenario. Microaggression started blowing up, at least in the literary world, chiefly in discussions of Claudia Rankine's excellent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, though it has its origins in academic race theory. Good suggestions all!
But anyway today I woke to news that folks over at Oxford Dictionaries have chosen "😂," whose official name is "Face with Tears of Joy," as the UK's Word of the Year. Their reasoning is that a "leading mobile technology business" called SwiftKey discovered that "😂 made up 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014."
My initial reaction to this news WAS the emoji itself, 😂, and so I guess Oxford is totally right to pick it for the UK's WOTY. But several people in the comments section are citing this announcement as the death of language, the end of the world, etc. This response is rooted in classist notions about the role of dictionaries in society and language, which, in the U.S., was pretty much settled by the "dictionary wars" of the 1960s. You can read all about them in David Foster Wallace's must-read-every-year essay "Authority and American Usage."
To sum it up very broadly: there's a spectrum of thought about dictionaries and grammar. Descriptivists think dictionaries and grammar rules should reflect the language that people use irl, while prescriptivists hold that strict rules on usage are necessary for the purposes of sense-making. When Webster's Third New International Dictionary came out, the American Heritage Dictionary and a few others started up as a kind of prescriptivist backlash to Webster's hippie-dippie descriptivist tome. Now, most institutions, including Oxford, which has always been all about defining every word ever, have usage panels full of writers and scholars who have more or less descriptivist views on English.
I totally sympathize with the initial cringing reaction, but, to address those who don't think an emoji is a word: words are signs that point to things or ideas in the world. An emoji is a sign that points to things or ideas in the world. I don't think emojis are very good as words—they don't contain any music, and, despite their versatility, the range of what they can communicate is pretty limited. But people do use them all the time, mostly because they're adorable and quick and they allow you to say "oh yes I totally emotionally agree with you about that" without having to type all that out all the time. Plus, they're great because they can charge a sentence with a very particular tone, which is something that's hard to do with words and punctuation alone.
At the same time, not everybody in the UK has access to smartphones, and so not everybody communicates using emoji. I could see an argument that says Oxford re-inscribes the classicism it's trying desperately to avoid by picking a hip pictogramic tech-type symbol as its WOTY rather than an old-fashioned symbol such as a regular and beautiful fucking word that doesn't require a smartphone to pronounce, but that's a very small quibble.
The more interesting question for me is what the dictionary's WOTY picks say about England. This year they selected "😂," last year they picked "vape," the year before was "selfie," and the year before that was "omnishambles." From this list, it sounds like the English are a bunch of narcissistic former smokers who think that everything is fucked but they're laughing about it.
When I asked my colleague, the amazing Angela Garbes, what she thought of Oxford's emoji pick, she responded perfectly: