Emoji — those ubiquitous icons used in texts, email, and social media to indicate mood, the weather, interests, and even relationship status — have been around since 1997. In the decades since, emoji have evolved to represent tiny insights into our increasingly tech-reliant lives. When communication occurs digitally, a small character (or string of them) can add nuance and context in a way that a lengthy block of text just can’t.
The word “emoji” comes from the Japanese e (“picture”) and moji (“character”). Much in the same way slang terms evolve with each new generation, the meanings of emojis have changed since that first pixelated set was introduced. Quite often, the intended meaning of the icon is all but forgotten as users put their own spin on the emoji. As lexicographers can attest, the meaning of a word (or an emoji) only works if that is how people are using it. Here are some of the most commonly used emoji and what they mean — at least for now.
🔥 The flame emoji can represent a real fire, but it’s more frequently used to convey the message that someone is “hot” (attractive) or “lit” (excellent).
🤣 The smiling-face emoji tilted on its side with tears is a reference to the popular internet acronym ROFL, which means “rolling on the floor laughing.” However, this emoji has fallen out of use recently — the Gen Z crowd would probably never express their digital laughter with this face.
🏠 Demonstrating how certain emoji can gain (or lose) definitions over time, this icon gained traction as more workers made use of home offices starting in 2020. The house emoji serves as a reminder on calendars and work-related chat programs that someone is working from home.
👍 In a work chat or text, the thumbs-up emoji can be used to show quick and enthusiastic approval or agreement. In some contexts, however, particularly for Generation Z, it can be read as passive-aggressive or sarcastic.
🙃 The upside-down smiling-face emoji can be used to mean sarcasm or silliness. While texting can leave something to be desired in regards to tone, a quick upside-down face can imply a joking quality to the message.
💅 The nail polish and fingernails emoji can be a calendar reminder for a mani-pedi appointment, but is now more frequently used to suggest indifference toward something or someone.
🚩 A red triangular flag on a pole may be familiar to golfers, but when it comes to the emoji, it’s more commonly used to signal a “red flag” problem or situation. When reviewing dating prospects with your friends, the red flag means you should get out of the situation quickly.
🐐 The goat emoji is the visual representation for the slang acronym GOAT (“Greatest of All Time”), often used in reference to athletes. It might also be sent to a friend after a particularly well-played basketball game, or perhaps sarcastically after a major slip-up.
🥺 One of the most popular emoji this year, the pleading face with oversized cartoon eyes is the equivalent of giving someone “puppy dog eyes.” It can be used to ask for something or to indicate support, concern, or adoration.
🫖 The teapot emoji can be used to represent tea or tea time, but it’s popularly used as a stand-in for the slang phrase “spill the tea,” meaning gossip. Pair this with the pleading face for an extra-strong request for the latest news.
💪 The flexed-bicep emoji is used to reference physical strength or working out, but it can also be used to refer to perseverance or to offer support.
👏 The meaning of the clapping-hands emoji depends on its usage. Used multiple times in a row, it indicates a round of applause. Using it in between words, however, is a passive-aggressive way of emphasizing a point.
💯 The 100 emoji, red and underlined, indicates something is real or authentic and can be used to show agreement or support. It can also represent pride in an accomplishment. Line it up with a few flexed biceps for a super-strong show of support.
🙏 The folded-hands emoji can mean “please” or “thank you,” or be used as a gesture of prayer, hope, or respect. It’s rarely used to mean “high five,” so expect confusion if you send it as a form of congratulations.
🗿 The moai emoji, modeled after one of the giant stone statues on Easter Island, is used to indicate a stoic, deadpan response to something the sender doesn’t find amusing. It’s similar to the painted nails, but even more serious.
💡 The light bulb emoji is used to indicate an idea or the act of thinking, as in “a lightbulb went on in my head.” With a dash of self-deprecating sarcasm, it can imply that it should have been an easy idea to understand.
🤔 The thinking-face emoji is one of the few emoji faces that include a hand. Like the lightbulb, this emoji can represent thinking, but it can also be used to indicate the sender is questioning or mocking something, depending on the context.
💀 The skull emoji can be used in a variety of situations to represent figurative death, as in “dying from laughter” or “I’m dead.” For Gen Z, the skull has replaced the tear-laughing face emoji to represent humor.
Featured image: Delmaine Donson/ iStock