The History of the Emoji

  • March 17, 2019

By Verity Jennings

Woman and man out of alignment
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When literary heavyweight The Oxford Dictionary named the “face with tears of joy” emoji as its word of the year for 2015, some were surprised.

Face with tears of joy

However, for many in the digital cultural vanguard, who have watched the ancient art of written communication slowly deteriorate for the better part of a decade, the unorthodox choice made perfect sense. Far from a passing fad, the emoji has been a part of the digital lexicon ever since “digital lexicon” has been a thing. Its rise to prominence has been gradual and steady and its roots can be traced back hundreds of years. As a concept, the emoji has been building momentum since the turn of the millennium, as a natural fit for a world moving further away from paper and towards digital screens for the past decade and a half.

With the emoji’s increasing appearance in email subject lines across the globe, we here at Phrasee felt that we had better take a deeper look, as we do with all things email subject line related.

The history of the emoji

Emojis first appeared on the scene in the late 1990’s in Japan, where mobile phone companies, inspired by symbols used in manga comics and Japanese weather forecasts, attempted to target an opening in the burgeoning mobile phone marketplace: the teenaged Hello Kitty generation.

Image credit: Sanrio

The word “emoji”, in fact, is just as Japanese as it sounds. It’s taken from the Japanese words “e” (“picture”), and “moji” (“character”).

However, to trace the true roots of this phenomenon, it is necessary to look even further back into our collective communication history.

Image credit:  Okkult Motion Pictures

“Emoticons”, graphic illustrations formed using keyboard characters, first appeared on the typewriter scene as far back as the 1800’s.

1881 Emoticons
Emoticons published in satirical magazine “Puck” in 1881

*** Interestingly, a 1862 New York Times transcript of an Abraham Lincoln speech even contains the phrase: “(applause and laughter ;)”. This may or may not have been a typo, but marks the first ever appearance of the “winky face” emoticon. ***

Although by no means prominent at the time, the link between these rudimentary drawings and the emoticons that began to appear in the computer revolution of the 1980’s is quite clear.

1982 marked the first appearance of the “smiley face” 🙂 and “frowny face” 🙁 emoticons. These remained in common use throughout the 80’s and 90’s, and, indeed do still appear in digital communications to this day.

East and West

During the development of the emoticon throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, several distinct, parallel processes developed and refined the art form, based on the keyboard characters available in different regions of the world.

The Western style (Europe and the Americas)

Where the “faces” appeared at a 90-degree angle:




The Eastern style (Asia)

Where the faces appeared vertically:

(*_*)                – Japan

(“)(-_-)(“)       – Japan

{^_^}              – Japan

‘ㅂ’                   – Korea

ㅇㅅㅇ             – Korea

囧                     – China

By the late 1990’s, the digital revolution was in full swing. The internet had become a pervasive influence, email use was growing exponentially and the mobile phone had become an indispensable item. With this explosion came a growing lexicon of keyboard and digital characters, allowing emoticon artists to spread their creative wings in increasingly complex ways.

emoticon art

emoticon birthday

emoticon art

Although quite impressive and undeniably cool, such emoticons were too painstaking for common use.

A growing subculture of people going to such lengths to create their own emoticons exposed a gap in the digital marketplace, which many were clamoring to fill.

In 1998, the emoji was born. Shigetaka Kurita created the first 180 emoji collection for a Japanese mobile web platform, and the concept spread from there.


The emoji proved to meet the needs of the growing mobile cellular phone industry so perfectly that soon, everyone was in on the act. Initially, each individual phone, or individual service provider had their own set of emojis. However, compatibility issues arose when communicating from network to network, particularly in different world regions.

The emoji proved to function as an extremely effective linguistic shortcut for those communicating cross culturally, as they visually conveyed complex emotions in a way that everyone could understand. As global communication became more accessible and common, the desire to utilize the emoji as a part of such communication grew and the need for a unified, standardized emoji set became clear.

The Unicode Consortium stepped in to fill the gap.

Unicode Logo

Unicode had been quite successful in navigating and correcting linguistic compatibility issues across the globe, making them the perfect fit for tackling the standardization of emoji sets.

In 2010, the consortium decided to incorporate emojis into Unicode, and the outcome was inevitable…

With tech giants Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook, Huawei, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo all dues-paying members of the Unicode consortium, and considering their combined market share of global digital communications, the Unicode emoji set was destined to become the universal gold standard.

By 2014, there were a total of 722 emojis in the standard Unicode 6.0 set.

In 2015, this number increased by 250, as an increasingly culturally sensitive world demanded the addition of more diverse skin tones.

Moving forward, this number is expected to continue to increase.

As emojis become further ingrained in the world of digital communication, they can be expected to appear in more and more areas of the internet and mobile networks, as seen recently with email subject lines.

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