Forget that it runs the two most popular websites in the world. Late last year, Google had more pressing business to attend to: Its burger emoji put the cheese underneath the patty.

On Oct. 28, 2017, writer Thomas Baekdal tweeted a screenshot from Emojipedia, a leading reference guide for emoji. The picture compared Apple’s burger emoji, which placed its cheese on top of the meat, to Google’s, where the cheese was curiously—monstrously—positioned on the bottom:

Baekdal’s juicy tweet garnered tens of thousands of retweets and tens of thousands of likes. It also sparked a viral conversation about how other mobile platforms and web browsers order their burgers.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, even weighed in:

Writing for The Verge about this “cheese-gate,” Thomas Ricker asked, “Do you have strong feelings about cheeseburgers? I didn’t realize I did until I saw [Baekdal’s tweet]. …Apple’s ordering of the lettuce, presumably a variant of iceberg sourced from an Italian quarry, is understandable as a mechanism for preventing the lower bun from getting soggy. It’s the same approach taken by the In-N-Out chain.

“Google’s positioning of the cheese is blasphemous, simultaneously defying both culinary physics (how do you cook it to drip down the bun like that?) and good taste (it’ll result in a soggy doughy mess).”

One month after Baekdal’s tweet, Google announced they’d be fixing the burger emoji with the next Android release. The update rolled out the following month, and nobody’s had to look at Google’s freakish first burger since.

The whole brouhaha didn’t just speak to the strong feelings we have about burgers. It also spoke to the strong feelings we have about emoji—which have transfixed our culture and transformed our communication in the few, mere years since they debuted on most of our devices.

From Cave Paintings to 🔤

Emoji literally means “picture character” in Japanese, with e signifying “picture” and moji referring to a “written character.” The word’s resemblance to its older cousin emoticon—a blend of emotion and icon—is coincidental, if convenient. Linguistically speaking, though, emoticons and emoji do share something very important in common: They are both ideograms.

Ideograms are pictures or symbols that represent an idea or concept. A smiley face emoticon, :), conveys some sense of happiness, pleasure, or amusement. Face with Tears of Joy—the formal name for 😂—expresses the feeling of “I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying.” Other everyday ideograms, for a frame of reference, include the percent symbol (%) or the no-smoking sign.

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iStock.com/philpell

As ideograms, emoticons and emoji aren’t just the newest and hottest craze sweeping tech-obsessed teens who are happy to ditch the English language. They are the latest iteration of an innovation as old as writing itself. Broadly speaking, writing systems begin with pictograms, such as pictures of a spearman and a bison on a cave wall telling the story of a hunt.

Over millennia, people began simplifying and regularizing such pictograms into ideograms, which can communicate bigger—and more—ideas not tied to any specific object. An early ideogram of that spearman, for example, might have been stylized to represent the abstract notion of “hunting,” not just one particular instance of it.

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Such ideograms became the basis of the oldest formalized writing systems in history: Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, Mayan script. These systems, though, then made a giant leap, as they transformed ideograms into logograms and phonograms.

A logogram uses a sign to represent a whole word or phrase, as seen in Chinese characters to this day. Take the Chinese character for sun: , scripted as . It began as a picture of the celestial body and extended over the centuries into all sorts of words dealing with concepts of “day” and “date.”

A phonogram, on the other hand, uses a sign to symbolize a sound unit in a language. We know phonograms as the alphabet, which scholars believe ancient Semitic tribes adapted from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Originating as a depiction of an ox, the letter A stands for certain vowel sounds we use in English, and can combine with 25 other such symbols to write out our entire language.

🗾➡🌎

Evidence for emoticon- and emoji-like ideograms can actually be found earlier than we might think. In 1635, a Slovakian notary signed off on a financial record with a smiley face to show his satisfaction with the accounts he was reviewing. An 1881 issue of Puck magazine, an early humor magazine in the U.S., featured four examples of emoticon-looking “typographical art” to convey joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment.

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Puck Magazine, March 30, 1881 (via brainpickings)

The modern emoticon, though, doesn’t appear until a century later. In 1982, Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested using 🙂 as a “joke marker” to communicate when a written message was meant facetiously and 🙁 for when it wasn’t. As personal computer use spread in the general population, creative typists and texters combined different punctuation marks and keyboard symbols to create ever more emoticons.

Emoji, for their part, were invented in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita. Inspired by weather forecast symbols, comics, street signs, and kanji characters, Kurita created the first emoji for a Japanese phone company to ease and enliven communication over cell phones and pagers. Other Japanese mobile carriers soon followed suit, but the popularity and use of emoji remained largely confined to the country until 2010, when Unicode incorporated them into their system.

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Shigetaka Kurita (Image via The Guardian)

Unicode provides a standard way to represent the over one hundred thousand different characters and symbols used by the world’s languages so that they are readable on any device. Known as Version 6.0, Unicode’s update in 2010 supported the first emoji—and made emoji far more accessible to the broader world.

😂📈

Unicode 6.0 started off with 722 emoji. As of June 2017, there are 2,666 emoji available—and the number is growing. But we don’t have to do any math to register the incredible appetite our zeitgeist has for emoji.

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iStock.com/CarrieCaptured

If we go to a mall, we can buy a 😍or 💩pillow along with your soft pretzel. (The proper name of the latter emoji? Pile of Poo.) Go to a cinema and we can see The Emoji Movie, which chronicles one outcast emoji’s journey to self-acceptance. Or go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and we can view Kurita’s original 176 emoji—which the museum added to its collection two years ago—alongside Van Gogh’s Starry Night. We can even go to Emojicon, which held the world’s “first ever festival on emoji” in San Francisco in 2016.

But we really need to go no further than our own text messages and social media timelines to take in the greatest impact emoji has had.

Even a cursory assessment will turn up a range of recent examples of how emoji have morphed our communication. In 2013, one inspired texter humorously penned superstar Miley Cyrus’ biography in a string of emoji. That same year, 800 other folks upped the literary ante and created Emoji Dick, sentence-by-sentence “translation” of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into emoji. As of publication, one copy costs $200 on Lulu.

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Jeff Novak/Medium

Fast forward to 2015, when Hillary Clinton memorably asked people to share how student debt made Twitter feel in three emoji, Domino’s allowed customers to place an order by tweeting 🍕, and Oxford Dictionaries even announced 😂—the most widely used emoji—as its Word of the Year. Actual emoji dictionaries fill bookstore shelves, whole swathes of communication written entirely in emoji fill our screens, and even menus can be written “in emoji.”  

Our collective emoji-mania had many of us fretting that emoji are ruining—even altogether killing—language.

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Bernart Hermant/Unsplash

“No, that’s not going to happen,” Jane Solomon tells Urbo. Solomon is a lexicographer at Dictionary.com. She also sits on a Unicode Consortium subcommittee that helps choose what new emoji make their way to our keyboards. “Emoji are paralinguistic. They sit beside existing language in the way that gesture or tone or facial expressions might.”

Solomon sees the rise of emoji, in large part, as a response to the limitations of written communication. “Emoji, and emoticons before them, have been a very useful tool when so much of our communication is written. Whether it’s texting or talking to our coworkers on Slack, you want to make sure that people understand the tone you are communicating with.”

🙋

Ellen Fisher—a sales director and active emoji-er in Minnesota—knows exactly what Solomon means about tone.

“It’s really hard through text to get sarcasm through,” she says. “But by putting an emoji at the end of a sarcastic comment, it provides context. …It adds tone.”

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Fisher gives us some insight on how real people are using emoji in their everyday communication. She finds 😛particularly effective for tonal purposes. She “can make jokes and be playful and light-hearted with it” so her messages don’t come across literally, echoing Scott Fahlman’s own suggestion about smileys 35 years earlier.

Fisher also likes to add 😘to make texts more flirtatious, and she says 👏on social media shows greater enthusiasm than a mere click of a “Like” button might. She finds 👍 very effective for wrapping up a chat—or quickly indicating that she’s read a message without having actually start up a whole conversation. “I like to use it as a supplement, not replacement,” she says.

Context is 👑.

As a lexicographer, Solomon is fascinated by how people are using upside down smiley face: 🙃.

“It’s just a way to express a really complex emotion,” she says. “It could be sarcasm. It could be a kind of self-deprecating humor, an awkward sadness. There’s a lot of different ways it can go. It depends on what kind of text it’s being placed next to, but I immediately understand the tone in a way that I wouldn’t if it weren’t there.”

She’s also keeping an eye on the 👀: “It’s sort of being used as a reaction emoji for conversations that happen online. …Maybe you are watching an online feud go down. Then you might go on Twitter or something and quote-tweet the feud and then have the eyes emoji.” It’s as if 👀 side-eyes the spectacle: “This is entertaining. This is also completely ridiculous.”

As Solomon’s observations suggest, context is 🔑 to emoji. If you’re presented with the Miley Cyrus emoji biography without context, you might gather that it set downs the triumphs and trials of some celebrity. If you were asked to transcribe Emoji Dick but weren’t given the title, author, or any other information, you’d have lots of instances of “man” and “whale”—but you’d not reproduce the great American novel.

That’s because, as we saw earlier, emoji are ideograms. They represent ideas. 🐶 can stand for “puppy.” 💍🍾🎉can signal “I got engaged!” You can place the ☎️before “me” to say “call me” or text “I’ll 🐝 right back” to say you’ll return in just a jiffy. We can string emoji together in endlessly inventive ways—like rebuses for the digital era.

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But that’s not language.

Consider this. How would you write is, are, or ain’t in emoji? How would you pronounce them? How would write if or which or about or of? Here, there, this, that? What about tomorrow or epistemology or should have believed? What about in order to form a more perfect union or inalienable rights?

We can—and do—come up with some clever ways to convey such things, but they only roughly map onto our actual language. They require tremendous, and very generous, interpretive effort. And they utterly fail to communicate even the most rudimentary utterances of a 3-year-old. Language has grammar. Emoji have images.

🐐 is 💯🔥.

Still, we are doing some very interesting—and very lexical—things with emoji. Consider the case of the 🍑.

As part of its iOS 10.2 update, Apple debuted over 100 new emoji, from an avocado and giant squid to a female welder and face-palm gesture. The company also gave their emoji a complete makeover. But when many users beheld its new peach emoji during a beta phase of the update, things weren’t so, well, peachy. The new peach emoji looked too much like, well, an actual peach—and not enough like a butt.

Yes, many feared Apple was taking away the beloved “peach-butt” emoji, so dubbed for the sweeping curve cleaving its plump, round middle. #RIPPeachEmoji soon trended on social media and Apple, apparently, noted the uproar. Upon the full release of the update later in the year, the peach emoji was better—and booty-ier—than ever.

All this fuss, though, wasn’t simply about peaches or butts. It was about language. It was about communication.

Emojipedia—a sort of Wikipedia of emoji—took note of the “peach-butt” hullabaloo and examined how a sample of people were using it on Twitter. They found that only seven percent of tweets were actually using the peach to represent “peach.” Thirty-three percent, meanwhile, were using it as a casual shorthand for “butt” (e.g., Finals are about to kick my [peach emoji]) while 27 percent had more sexually suggestive uses in mind. Thirteen percent used the peach emoji in the context of physical fitness (e.g., “Front squat warm-ups 🍑”) and only four percent to express a “peachy,” or cheerful, mood.

Often paired with the peach emoji is 🍆, which does some colorful moonlighting thanks to its phallic appearance. Punctuating a text or tweet with 💅 can refer to beauty or self-care, but it can also express sass, fanciness, nonchalance, or self-confidence. Punching out 🔥in a website headline can be a lively substitute for such slang as cool, hot, fire, or lit—that is, excellent. The 💯, literally meant to indicate a perfect score, also doubles as excellent or the slang expression keep it 100.

Solomon hipped Urbo to an alternate meaning of the 🐐. “The goat is now associated with greatness,” she says. That’s because people are using it for the abbreviation G.O.A.T, or “the greatest of all time,” associated with the likes of Muhammad Ali and LL Cool J. “Someone might say this person is the goat, [and] they might just have the goat emoji.”

“These two concepts are very different, but they both are pronounced the same way [and] there happens to be an emoji representing one of the senses.”

Emoji aren’t all ☀️ and 🌈.

As the various uses of peach and goat illustrate, emoji can have multiple meanings, a quality linguists refer to as polysemy and a critical feature of words in any language. And this polysemy suggests emoji are showing word-like behavior.

Emoji are also displaying the rudiments of a kind of syntax, or how a language arranges words to yield meaningful utterances, e.g., the car is blue vs. is blue car the.

🍺☠might indicate a hangover.  💑💔 might signal a breakup. 📓🏃🏽⏰ might mean someone is running late to class. The order of emoji has the potential to express time and cause and effect.

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iStock.com/Martin Dimitrov

Solomon calls Urbo’s attention to emoji that point in a particular direction, or what she calls “directional emoji.” She highlights the gun emoji—because it points left.

“When we’re talking about the gun emoji,” she says in her keynote speech at the eLex conference, “we’re talking about who is being shot and who is doing the shooting, so direction very much matters.” She compares tweets with 🙃 🔫, suggesting a reflexive sarcasm in the face of some misjudgment, to  🔫😎, which might imply a stone-cold delight in violence.

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Who’s on the barrel end of the gun emoji can have real consequences. A teenager was arrested in 2015 for social media posts that included the gun emoji pointed the police officer emoji. Some authorities interpreted this a threatening law enforcement, though the charges were later dropped.

Similarly, in 2016, a 12-year-old was charged with threatening her school and computer harassment after making a social media post to a classmate who was apparently bullying her: “meet me in the library Tuesday 🔫🔪💣.”

Emoji—as these rising legal challenges suggest—aren’t just fun and games anymore.

What’s next for emoji?

For now, emoji serve as a shorthand with style. They act as punctuation with personality. They add much-needed nuance to plain old text-based messages. They offer emphasis and emotion in ways the simple written word can’t. They line our Tweets and bookshelves. They can send us to the MoMA—and to court. And while they’re not going to replace language, despite the loudest complaints of purists and peevers, they’re certainly not going anywhere in our communication or culture.

“Something I’d be really interested to see,” Solomon says of the future of emoji, “is how will children who are coming of age now [communicate]. Emoji are just integrated into their communication [from the] very first device they touch. They will develop emoji use in a way that I can’t even imagine right now.”

Until then, Apple really needs to sort out its bagel emoji, which doesn’t have cream cheese.

Oh wait, they just did.

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