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17 November 2015

Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is an emoji. Should it be “they” instead?

The choice betrays a desire to cosy up to the internet generation and avoid more complex social issues. 

By Barbara Speed

This week in PR news events: Oxford Dictionaries, the brains behind the Oxford English Dictionary, have announced their “word of the year”. True to form, this year’s candidate has made a splash online, because it’s not actually a word at all – it’s an emoji.

The chosen picture is what the Unicode Consortium (the wardens of online text and picture characters) calls the “face with tears of joy emoji”. Here are a few versions of it, as designed by different technology companies:

According to the Oxford Dictionaries (OD) website, the symbol was chosen because it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”. According to some academics, emoji is the fastest growing language in the UK. OD partnered with SwiftKey, a mobile tech company, to find the most-used emoji of all, and the rest is history. 

OD’s word of the year tends to resonate with the internet generation in particular. Last year’s winner was “vape”; 2013’s was “selfie”. It’s clear that OD are using a marketing stunt to remind us that its products are still a relevant reference point in the internet age. In fact, this year’s winner makes clear that they still want a piece of the pie, even if words are replaced by grinning yellow pictures altogether. 

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Accompanying the press release on OD’s website is a poll, where you can vote for your choice of word out of this year’s shortlist. Other contenders included “Dark Web”, “on fleek”, “refugee” and “ad blocker”. Interestingly, at time of writing, the emoji is running in second place, with 20 per cent of the vote. In first is “they”, when used as a gender-neutral pronoun, with 23 per cent of the vote. 

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Perhaps it’s the mood after Friday’s Paris attacks, but the emoji choice felt a little trite, especially when a different, more socially engaged choice has already proved more popular with the public. The announcement usually includes a history of the word in question and its usage, which could have raised awareness around trans language in a positive, celebratory way.

“Word of the year” may be a PR stunt, but it still holds symbolic weight: it sends the message that language change is a good thing, and something we should all take part in, which, after all, is the message we send by using “they” or other non-traditional pronouns. Ah, well. Maybe next year.