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What are emojis?

29 May 2016 ( 03 August 2020 )

Smiley faces. Fist pumps. Beating hearts. Welcome to the world of emojis – tiny images used in mobile phone text messages to convey how you’re feeling.

A woman smiles at an emoji received on her mobile phone
Emojis are a fun way to get your point across succinctly in a text message

Modern smartphones are able to send a fascinating range of tiny images in text messages. Called emoji, these miniscule images were originally developed by Japanese mobile phone networks in the late 1990s. Emoji images rapidly caught on, and are now used in the latest iPhone and Android smartphones to quickly convey a thought, feeling or activity as a single icon or image.

What are emojis?

Think of emoji as small icons that convey a meaning, and are inserted into standard text messages and – more recently – email and instant messaging on computers. The key to their success is their use of standard mobile phone codes – so an image included in one mobile phone on, say, Apple’s iOS operating system can be seen on a different system, such as Google’s Android.

There are lots of emoji images for all types of circumstances. From smiling faces and dancing women to thumbs up and snowmen, there are hundreds of emoji. Emoji come in a range of categories, such as nature, faces, food, icons, sports, flags and technology.

Apple made emoji popular with its iPhone, which launched in Japan only once Apple agreed to build emoji into its iOS operating system. Since then, Apple has played a major role in emoji development, including newer updates featuring a range of skin tones for all emojis of people.

How do I use emojis?

Depending on your mobile device, you should be able to access emojis from the onscreen keyboard. On an iPhone, tap Messages, then tap New Message. Enter in the recipient, then tap in the message area to begin your message. Tap the smiley face on the lower-left of the keyboard to access your emoji library. Swipe left and right to find the emoji that you want to use, then tap it to add it into the message. Tap ‘ABC’ to return to the normal keyboard.

You can also bring emojis up into the text suggestion section above your keyboard, for example type 'dolphin' into WhatsApp and a picture of a dolphin will appear where an autocorrect word usually would. This can sometimes be faster than scrolling to find the image you want, although it works best when you know what you're looking for.

Related: 12 tips to make your iPhone easier to use

How are emojis different from emoticons?

It’s easy to confuse emojis and emoticons. Emoticons are created from keyboard characters to create a basic image, such as :-) to convey a smile and :-P to convey a person sticking out their tongue. Emoticons are limitless and have no rules, whereas emoji images are agreed between mobile phone makers to ensure that the image can be sent between phones. Sometimes you'll find an emoticon is automatically turned into an emoji, depending on what platform you're typing into.

Does using emojis cost money?

Modern mobile phones include the ability to send emoji as a standard (SMS) text message. These are usually included within any monthly text message allowance. Some older mobile phones don’t support emoji over SMS, and so convert it into a multimedia (MMS) text message before sending it. MMS messages usually fall outside any free text message allowance, and can be charged at up to 40p per message. Here’s our advice on ensuring you beat costly emoji MMS bills:

  • Check your mobile phone. Your mobile phone maker should be able to tell you if emojis are sent as SMS text messages. Recent smartphones include emojis within SMS messages, whereas older mobile phones will send them as MMS messages.
  • Turn off MMS. On iPhone and Android smartphones, you can switch off MMS. On iPhone, tap Settings > Messages. Toggle MMS Messaging off.
  • Use iMessage or WhatsApp. These use mobile broadband such as 3G and 4G to send rich messages, and fall within any mobile or Wi-Fi usage allowances.

What do the emojis mean?

Some emojis might be obvious, such as facial expressions to show a particular mood, or cars and trains to show you're travelling, or flags to show someone is planning a holiday or watching sports. But others can be vague, or have taken on a meaning that is perhaps different to the original intention. Here are some examples of emojis you might not be sure about:

Aubergine/eggplant: the aubergine emoji has taken on a bit of a sexually suggestive meaning, so don't send it to the wrong person!
Blue heart: the blue heart usually means peace or harmony, or it can be used as hope
Woman tipping hand: the woman with her palm up is usually used to express sassiness as the hand up is often interpreted as flicking back hair, but it can also be used in an exasperated 'I just give up' way.
Goat: the goat is often used to meant 'greatest of all time', G.O.A.T.
Open hands: usually a friendly, open gesture
Octopus: the eight-legged marine creature is often used to symobilse a big hug
Flame: the flame simply means 'on fire' but, y'know, in a good way, like a song is a hit or someone's outfit is, as the kids would say, 'lit'.
Peach: perhaps unsurprisingly, the peach is often used as a bottom.
Clapping hands: they can be a good thing or bad thing depending on context, as they can be used as a simple applause or to highlight something passive aggressive - this is particularly the case when the clap is between every word, like someone banging on a desk as they speak.
100: the 100 emoji is used to show support, approval or agreement.
Eyes: the eyes looking to the side are usually used in a slightly tongue-in-cheek sneaky, shifty way when someone is planning something or joking about doing something naughty.

Emojies are always going to have some variations in meaning depending on the individual using them and the context they're being used in. And, just like language generally, their use is always evolving. If you ever want to check you're interpreting something correctly check on Emojipedia, or if in doubt just ask the sender as the last thing anyone would want is a falling out over an emoji misunderstanding.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.