Putting on our happy face

Calgary Herald, Feb 1, 2016: I think my mom invented the emoji. I have a ripped manila envelope full of letters she wrote me in university and each page of yellow foolscap is littered with little happy faces. If only she had added a TM. Because, boy, that little happy face my mom started back in the day has really come a long way.

In the 1990s we started seeing emoticons — icons for emotions. The clever little keyboard tricks mimic a facial expression and let you send a smile, or if you feeling especially saucy, a little wink ;-). Japanese cellphones brought us emojis a little later, about the time we all started carrying the world in our pockets. The little pictures go well beyond winks to cover off other important elements of our humanity such as chocolate covered doughnuts, paper clips and traffic lights.

An emoji called Face with Tears of Joy was named Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015, despite the fact it’s either five words or none at all, depending on how you look at it. While the dictionary considered many other actual words for the honour, in the end it was decided that the tiny picture of a face with happy tears “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.”

Tears of joy is so last year.

So far in 2016, the emoji that may well best reflect our mood is the tiny face with its hands raised on either side of its head and its mouth open in a silent cry. Face Screaming in Fear is my favourite emoji not because of $30 oil, Edvard Munch or existential angst, but because I like the absurdity of it. You can scroll through a row of tiny faces on your phone and select perfect anguish — just a few over from the blushing face and a few up from the one with bandage on its head.

I saw the original version of The Scream at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on my last birthday when I may have felt just a little bit of a scream coming on. I stared at the simple crayon on wood and wondered what Munch would think if he knew that we routinely text a modern version of his work to friends for fun. He created three more versions of The Scream, as well as a lithograph that he used to print a few dozen copies and keep the cheese on the macaroni. I bet he would have done a few jumpy claps if he had known his 1895 version — pastel on cardboard — would sell for more than US$120 million in 2012.

And it all started when Munch took a little stroll in Nice, France in 1893:

“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.”

A few years after that writing, Munch turned the journal entry into a poem. I’m not sure whether the Splashing Sweat Symbol or Information Desk Person emoji have as powerful an origin story. And I don’t think anyone wants to know the inspiration behind others (looking at you Pile of Poo.)

But every single one of the more than 1,300 emoji out there has been thoroughly vetted and approved by the Unicode Consortium in California. They’re the crowd that standardizes the various character mappings used by different companies and different devices (when you hit an emoji, you’re sending a standardized number that the other device looks up to display). It takes a couple of years for approved emojis to show up on your phone. Coming in 2016: Bacon, Man In Tuxedo and Person Doing Cartwheel. (I am sure it’s just a coincidence that cartwheel and bacon are in the same release).

But if you’re like me, you may already be having a hard time choosing emojis. If I start scrolling for something in particular, say that blue oil drum with two holes on top, I usually get overwhelmed and start hitting them randomly and creating accidental emoji poetry — A unicorn’s head, a brown boot and a pineapple. A leaf, a ghost, a rotary phone.

It’s fun and all. At least for me. My friends may prefer if I stuck to my old-school wheelhouse, the myriad faces. Instead of random emoji art maybe I’ll start documenting our mood — from The Scream to a grimace, straight through pensive up past perseverance and eventually back to a happy face. The one with sunglasses.

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