How did emojis come to be?

6 surprising facts about the world’s digital tongue


Samuel Tan

5 Oct 2021

Did you know that 17th of July is World Emoji Day?

Before you scoff at global celebrations feting these tiny icons, consider this: every day, 92% of humans online exchange messages containing over 6 billion emojis, from every web-connected patch of our planet.

Emojis are, in fact, the closest thing the world has to a universal code. Their reach has eclipsed even that of English – all while completely devoid of words, and professing no grammar.

10 years after their international launch in 2011 – the year emojis became a standard feature on Apple’s mobile operating system – these cartoonish glyphs have grown into a cultural phenomenon.

Emoji advertising for an irreverent anti-hero flick: Deadpool

Emoji advertising for an irreverent anti-hero flick: Deadpool

Emojis have since been used to sell movies (Deadpool), translate literary classics (Emoji Dick is the Unicode retelling of Moby Dick), emerged as markers of radical political affiliation (anti-mask movement), exploited as a loophole against censors (emojified racist slurs), and are even used by some of today’s youngest digital natives to learn how to read.

So how well do you know these little characters who have made it big? Here are 6 surprising facts about emojis.

#1: The “emo-” in emojis doesn’t mean “emotion”

Unlike emoticon, a portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon”, emoji is a transliteration of the Japanese word e (絵 = picture) mo (文 = writing) ji (字 = character).

While emoticons are pictograms assembled by users from standard keyboard symbols, emojis are pre-designed graphics that appear as unique keyboard characters in mobile messaging applications.

Not the same: emoticon vs emoji

Not the same: emoticon vs emoji

The first coloured emojis were created in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita (栗田穣崇) for cell phones on Japanese telco NTT DoCoMo’s pioneering mobile internet system i-mode.

At that time, mobile devices lacked the technical specifications to display images. Kurita was dissatisfied with the use of text to convey information that he felt was better presented visually, such as weather forecasts: ☀️ vs  “Sunny”. Additionally, cell phone screens could only fit 48 characters, sharply limiting the amount of text data displayed.

To solve this communication challenge, and to help mobile users better express themselves in very short texts, Kurita led a team which spent 2 years designing a 176-character set of 12×12-pixel icons. These proto-emojis, which were rendered in just 1 of 6 colours, became an instant hit. In 2016, NTT donated this piece of digital history to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Spot the faces: Shigetaka Kurita’s original emoji set

Spot the faces: Shigetaka Kurita’s original emoji set

Today, emojis are part of the Universal Coded Character Set (UCS/Unicode), the global IT standard for digitally encoding the world’s writing systems. Their continued development is overseen by the non-profit Unicode Consortium, which reviews proposals for new emojis that anyone can submit.

As of July 2021, the California-based organisation is led by 9 internet corporations who are its top funders: Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, SAP, Salesforce and Yat Labs.

This is part 1 of the 6-part series: “Do you speak Emoji? 6 surprising facts about the world’s digital tongue.”