“Tears of joy”


The annual “word of the year” pronouncements were made this month, to the usual fanfare of navel-gazing or disbelief when lexicographers name the new word, or sometimes phrase, that has made waves this year.

It’s more than the new arrival, or new widespread use of the word, that is being acknowledged. In a way it captures the year’s zeitgeist, the spirit of how we’ve evolved as human beings that particular year through the language we use. This is all the more relevant given how much more writing we do in the social media era.

ToJLast year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries it was ”vape”. Before that “seflie”

Then there are the differences between word choices by different lexicographers (one of my favourite personal words, for the people who make dictionaries), but most notably Oxford versus Collins. On top of that there are the two major streams of English: UK English versus American, both of which tend to have their own word of the year. In 2012, for instance, it was “gif” in the US and “omnishambles” in the UK (Both Oxford).

Which brings us to this year’s controversy. Oxford Dictionaries has crowned not a word, but an emoji. And a very specific one at that.

“For the first time ever, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a pictograph: , officially called the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji,” these lexicographers explained. “There were other strong contenders from a range of fields, but was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”.

Expecting innumerable bewildered looks, those folks in Oxford, offered this explanation: “Emojis (the plural can be either emoji or emojis) have been around since the late 1990s, but 2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely.

“This year Oxford University Press have partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emoji across the world, and was chosen because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified 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.”

One fifth of all emoji were “tears of joy”. That says something about our culture, although it’s going to be harder to ascertain if they were real tears of joy or just the textual equivalent.

Be that as it may, we’ve gotten that point in human evolution where a combination of punctuation symbols (which originally create emoticons) have overtaken the actual words of the language for meaning. Is it a bad thing? It’s hard to tell.

The English language is evolving. It is no longer the formally structured discourse of Shakespeare or Chaucer. Nor is it the staid English of the 19th century literature. Not even the painful contrivance of language from origins of Apartheid in the 1960s, when “separate development” was born.

For a grammar purist like a journalist, this evolution of language is a disturbing trend. Txtspk (or SMS texting) has robbed language of its vowels, punctuation and full sentences. Now, we’re losing the words altogether.

I often fear I am being a stick-in-the-mud, a sentimental, change-resistant (getting older) fart who hankers for a bygone era. I just like full sentences, very much like the editor of this fine publication.

I was fascinated, when I studied English literature at Rhodes University, to discover that branch of knowledge about the origin of words: epistemology (one of my all-time favourite words). This study of where words come from and how they acquired their meaning is enthralling in itself (I may be a word geek). But it also reveals something quite profound about the nature of how we humans find meaning.

I fear that by reducing the scope of our languages, we lose the depth and beauty of those words, or their meaning.

We are all the poorer for losing poetry and prose from everyday speech. Now we’re losing the words themselves when we want to convey a feeling.

What is the emoji for “sad face, with defeated shrug”?


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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