AJ Dellinger— Jan 2, 2015 at 2:42PM | Last updated Dec 11, 2015 at 8:40AM
The Internet broke language in 2014. The Global Language Monitor (GLM) has awarded the heart emoji as the most popular word in the English language.
“This is the first time an ideograph has captured Word of the Year honors,” the GLM explained in its 15th annual survey of the English language. “The Heart and Love emoji, emoticon, and variations thereof appear billions of times a day around the world—across languages and cultures.”
This perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise given the universality of emojis and emoticons—symbols that make sense no matter the language of the reader.
In its reasoning for crowning the heart emoji, the GLM pointed to data from FiveThirtyEight collected in June 2014 that showed the heart popped on Twitter feeds with a significant amount of regularity: 342 million appearances. That was more than any other emoji by a long shot. (The “tears of joy” emoji was the only one to come close, at 278 million.) And variations that included hearts were all over the place, appearing in 14 of the top 100 emojis.
Clearly Twitter users <3 the heart emoji.
Also cracking the top 10 words were “vape,” “bae,” and “bashtag,” so maybe the best thing for the English language is that a word didn’t win because some of ours are becoming embarrassing.
In the top names and nouns of the year, Pope Francis was dethroned from his top spot in 2013 and was replaced by Ebola. The NSA also hung around in the top 10 after ranking third last year.
“Hands up, don’t shoot” was the most popular phrase of 2014.. “Global warming” and “climate change” shared the number three spot in 2013 and now occupy the three and four spots, respectively, meaning we’re talking about them a lot—unfortunately, too often followed by the words “is a hoax.”
GLM explained that its word of the year picks are “based upon actual word usage throughout the English-speaking world, which now numbers more than 1.83 billion people.” To qualify for the list, the words must be used globally, have at least 25,000 citations, and appear in various forms of media the world-over. “The goal is to find the word usage that will endure the test of time,” the GLM said.
The organization employs a trend tracking service called NarrativeTracker, which conducts real time global Internet and social media analysis. “NarrativeTracker analyzes the Internet, blogosphere, the top 275,000 print and electronic global media (not limited to the English-language-based media), as well as new social media sources as they emerge,” it said. (Can a language tracker that still uses the term “blogosphere” be trusted?)
Below are all the top words, nouns, names, and phrases of 2014:
Top words of 2014
The Heart Emoji
The Top Phrases of 2014
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot
War on Women
All Time High
The Top Names of 2014
World War One
Médecins Sans Frontières
FIFA World Cup
Ice Bucket Challenge
Prince George of Cambridge
It started about six months ago, with a smiley face here and there, a sequence of pictograph red hearts when friends would send baby pictures or a string of blown kisses to say good night. I especially liked the face with a toothy, uncomfortable-looking grimace: “Yikes,” it seemed to say. Perfect for “I’m sorry I’m late!” or “Eek, it’s 1 p.m. and I just woke up.”
Eventually I was replacing words with characters, adding a series of flexing biceps to the encouraging “you can do it!” text. Then one day I spent a full 10 minutes obsessing over the perfect way to say “I’m a writer. I don’t do math” in a message to my accountant: [Girl symbol] (meaning me) + [Pen and paper] (writer) + [calculator] (math) = “?!?!?” Right, it doesn’t sound so complicated. But by finding said emoji, putting them in sequence and spacing them out, I could have typed the statement 17 times. Mid-composition, I got a phone call from a source I had been waiting to talk to. I pressed ignore.
This was emoji chaos; it had to stop.
The roots of smiley faces and emoticons go back to the 1880s, but the story of the emoji, those little pictorial icons on your cellphone, began in Japan in the mid-1990s when it was added as a special feature to a brand of pagers popular with teenagers. It wasn’t until 2008 that a uniform emoji alphabet was created (the idea was to minimize inconsistency across platforms), and Apple adopted it in 2011, adding it to its iOS5 operating system.
But what was once the domain of tech geeks and Honshu tweens has infected the masses. Emoji was crowned as this year’s top-trending word by the Global Language Monitor, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (funny, because it’s a word that describes the concept of not actually using words). There is now a blog, Emojinalysis, that purports to psychoanalyze users’ most frequently used emoji (take a screenshot and send); a beta site, Emoj.li, for the first emoji-only social network (yes, as in only emoji); and the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit devoted to emoji standardization across platforms, recently said it would add 250 emoji to Apple, Microsoft and Google products. I seriously considered adding an emoji sequence to my résumé this week.
“A guy just asked me out in emoji [wineglass] + [boy-girl faces] + [?],” a friend told me, when I asked if she thought we had reached an emoji tipping point. “We carried on an emoji-only conversation for about 45 minutes.”
According to the website Emojitracker, which uses Twitter to calculate emoji usage, people are averaging 250 to 350 emoji tweets a second. Smiley faces and hearts abound, but there are more complicated sequences, too. There’s emoji as punctuation [excited face], as emphasis [sob], as a replacement for words (“Can’t wait for [palm trees] [sun] [swim]!”) or to replace words altogether. (The accompanying emoji graphic, recently sent by a friend, describes a weekend date that started out well, including a trip to the vineyards of Sonoma County, but then ended with her realization that the relationship would go no further. Hence: a frustrated face symbol.)
There is emoji for when you don’t really know what to say, but don’t want to be rude by not responding [Thumbs up], and for when you just don’t really want to respond at all. “I love emoji because I don’t like to make small talk,” one woman said. There are emoji sequences to express real-life concepts, too. “In the wake of the Hobby Lobby ruling,” said Caroline McCarthy, a start-up consultant, “I created an emoji sequence for ‘vasectomy.’ ” It was: [scissors], [eggplant], [screaming face].
In their short life, emoji managed to find an exceptional cultural range: One Internet wit put out an emoji translation of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” and an emoji-only version of “Moby Dick,” called “Emoji Dick,” was recently accepted into the Library of Congress. Legal experts have even discussed whether an emoji death threat [gun and face] could be admissible in court. “I’m not sure you can really speak of it as a full-fledged language yet,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist, “but it does seem to have fascinating combinatorial possibilities. Any sort of symbolic system, when it’s used for communication, is going to develop dialects.”
As with any new medium, there are growing pains. “Even with my glasses on, I can’t see those little things very well,” said Ruth Ann Harnisch, 64, a writer and philanthropist. Emoji also tend to mistranslate when sent between platforms, or they get jumbled if you don’t have the right font. So while a heart may be a heart on your phone, it may end up as a series of glitch squares on Facebook or if you read your email in Chrome. (Conducting interviews about emoji, over multiple platforms, was a comedy of misinterpretations.)
The current emoji package has been criticized as too limited: not enough emoji diversity, and in the height of the summer vacation season, not even a lobster icon (no crabs, either). There’s also a certain subjective quality to the sequences. Depending on whether you think the little face with the teardrop on his forehead is sweating or crying, your friend may have either just been dumped or been to SoulCycle. “I think it’s clear that a rough grammar exists for emoji, or is at least emerging,” said Colin Rothfels, a developer who maintains a Twitter feed, @anagramatron, that collects tweets (and thus emoji) that are anagrams.
The Unicode Consortium, the agency that governs this sort of thing, is in the process of rolling out its new emoji icons — including a hot pepper (hot or spicy) and a man in a business suit levitating (jump). And yet, more options may only exacerbate a problem well known to those fluent in emoji-speak (or at least this person fluent in it): With no standardized keyboard, how are we supposed to sort through all of those options?
It’s enough to make anyone want to [scream face].
Related Quiz: Are You Fluent in Emoji?