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Emoji: How to Decipher and Understand Them

Some emoji may not mean what you think they mean.

Tennis shoe, smiley face, rocketship, pasta, am I right?
Jason Cipriani/CNET

These days, a text is rarely just text. As emoji grew in popularity on smartphones starting in 2010, they gave us a new language to communicate in full of smiles, winks and hearts. Emoji can trace their roots back to the emoticons of the early 1980s -- if you're old enough to remember life before smartphones, you've probably used the smiley emoticon, :-), composed of a colon, dash and closing parenthesis. Emoji, however, are massive sets of characters available through iOS, Android, Windows and MacOS

Some use emoji sparingly in messages, while others have nearly mastered communication and can use them like modern-day hieroglyphics. 

Read more: 5 Best Emoji Keyboards for Android and iOS

A "😃" or "❤️" are simple enough to understand, but what does "👠🦝 🍔" mean? Over time, emoji meanings have become subjective depending on a message's context and wider cultural trends. 


There's an emoji for just about everything.


What does the upside-down smiley face indicate? Which emoji with a tongue sticking out is the least weird? Does the peach emoji actually mean fruit anymore? Here's how to figure out what an emoji means... all 3,633 of them. 

Your guide to emoji meanings: Emojipedia 

Emojipedia is, well, an online encyclopedia of emoji. The website sorts emoji into eight categories, including Smileys and People, Objects, Activity and more. Clicking a category -- such as Smileys and People -- will open up a specific list of emoji including, you guessed it, smileys and people, as well as families, hand gestures, clothing and accessories. 

If you click "😅" (grinning face with sweat), for example, Emojipedia will give you a brief description of the emoji, what it means, when it became an official emoji and other possible names for it.

"[It's] intended to depict nerves or discomfort but commonly used to express a close call, as if saying Whew! and wiping sweat from the forehead," Emojipedia says of the grinning face with sweat emoji. 

Emojipedia will also show you the different artwork styles for each emoji across platforms, since the characters often appear differently depending on your device. It'll also give you shortcodes for Github and Slack, if applicable. 


Is a text message complete without an emoji?

Angela Lang/CNET

Which are the most popular emoji?

While you may have your own go-to emoji, according to Emojipedia, these are the most popular emoji as summer is about to begin. Note that not all platforms support all the latest emoji, so they may not all appear on your device.

How often do new emoji get added to different platforms?

The Unicode Standard -- a universal character encoding standard -- is responsible for creating new emoji. But anyone can submit an idea for a new emoji. The most recent batch of emoji was released with Emoji 14.0 in September 2021; Apple's iOS 15.4 was the latest update to bring new emoji to all users. It included 37 new emoji, including a melting face, two hands forming the shape of a heart and a troll. 

So, these folks take emoji seriously?

You could say that. Emojipedia even hosts the World Emoji Awards every July 17. In 2021, any emoji approved in 2020 was eligible. Winners were determined by popular vote on Twitter. Awards are given for Most Popular New Emoji and Most Anticipated Emoji. In 2021, the most-anticipated emoji award went to the melting face emoji, for example. 

In 2021, Emojipedia asked users to decide which emoji best represented the year. People could vote and keep track with a March Madness-style bracket. The winning emoji was a syringe emoji (💉) to represent vaccine optimism. The runner-up was a microbe emoji ( 🦠) for the coronavirus pandemic.