Emoji meanings can be confusing
Even if you’re not a regular texter, you’re definitely familiar with emoji (that’s right, the plural is the same as the singular): they appear in advertising, in captions and in videos. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries even declared an emoji to be the word of the year: “face with tears of joy,” otherwise known as “crying laughing.” The history of emoji goes back further than you might think, and with over 60 per cent of people over 35 considering themselves “frequent” emoji users, there’s no doubt that emoji are here to stay. However, for all the emoji flying around in our texts and captions, there’s not a whole lot of consensus on those emoji meanings.
A 2016 study illustrated the huge misunderstandings that can happen when people use emoji: From the meaning to the emotion, misinterpretations are extremely common. All emoji are made with Unicode, but they all look different on different platforms, from Apple and Android to Facebook and Twitter. Most of the confusion in understanding seems to arise with the face emoji, which makes sense; even in real life, one person’s joyful smile is another person’s sarcastic smirk. Similarly, the emoji which appears to be grimacing on Apple devices is grinning on Android ones! However, there is some general consensus as to the use and meaning of most emoji, some of it based on the Japanese creators’ intent, and some on the way they have come to be interpreted and used here in the West. Be sure to bookmark this handy guide, because it could help to prevent some serious communication errors!
Meaning: This emoji is sometimes mistaken for sobbing, but the actual emoji meaning is laughter – laughing so hard you cry, that is.
When to use it: When your cat, kid, or spouse does or says something hilarious.
Meaning: The upside-down smiling face can be used to mean silliness or playfulness, but its best use is for a thing that’s often really hard to convey over text: Sarcasm! You’re smiling, but you’re not really smiling, you know?
When to use it: Your friend asks you to pick them up from the airport, and you say “Sure!” before they tell you they get in at 5am.
Meaning: This is called “relieved face,” but we’ve always thought it’s more of a quiet, modest contentment.
When to use it: Someone lets you know they really like the gift you sent them.
Meaning: Smiling face with sweat is perfect for those times you think something will turn out OK, but you’re still a little nervous about it. Like that big presentation. It’s going to be fine.
When to use it: When the forecast for the surprise birthday picnic you’re planning switches to “chance of rain” the day before.
Meaning: The smirking face emoji can also indicate sarcasm, but be careful with its usage: This emoji is often used for flirting! To be safe, just don’t send it to anyone you’re related to.
When to use it: Bantering with that cutie. You know the one.
Meaning: According to the creators, this face is supposed to mean “screaming in fear.” It does have quite a resemblance to the painting The Scream, but we think it works for showing shock, too.
When to use it: You’re texting your spouse to come remove a spider from the bathroom.
Meaning: We all know that wearing sunglasses makes us look cool and effortless, and this emoji is used to capture that feeling: someone or something that is totally awesome.
When to use it: You just got a promotion.
Meaning: This face is used to indicate being asleep. Or being so bored you could fall asleep. Also, you snore. Sorry you had to find out this way!
When to use it: You really need to go home and go to bed.
Meaning: This emoji is technically called the “sleepy face” emoji, but is more commonly used to represent weary sadness or sometimes illness.
When to use it: It’s been a long, tough week.
Meaning: Jazz hands? Confusion? Feeling pretty? Nope. This emoji is meant to indicate a hug!
When to use it: Someone shares good news with you!
Meaning: Although this looks like someone gently teasing you, it’s actually meant to indicate something delicious. Like, cookies delicious.
When to use it: Sometimes, you just have to post a pic of your brunch. This is the emoji for that picture.
Meaning: This is one of the most flexible emoji out there. Although its name is “unamused face,” it’s often referred to as the “side eye emoji,” and can be used to indicate annoyance, disapproval, or skepticism.
When to use it: When rumours are flying that your team is going to trade your favourite player.
Meaning: The “grimacing face” is used for a range of negative emotions: nervousness, awkwardness, embarrassment, it covers them all!
When to use it: Your phone autocorrects a word and suddenly your message is the opposite of what you meant to say.
Meaning: The “face without mouth” emoji is useful for those times you’re rendered speechless. It can also be interpreted as very deliberately not commenting, such as when you’re gossiping about someone’s outfit choice. Not that we would ever judge.
When to use it: For the (rare) times when you do judge.
Meaning: Although the two faces with small tear might look similar, they’re intended to have different meanings. This one is called “sad but relieved face” while the other is simply “crying face.” How to tell them apart? Well, this emoji isn’t crying. It’s sweating! And the eyebrows are tilted up, rather than down. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
When to use it: We still think it looks like it’s crying. Use when you’re upset, but things could have been worse. Like when you burnt the cookies, but only half of them.
Meaning: The classic crying face: This emoji is for minor sorrows, like your favourite ice cream flavour being discontinued.
When to use it: We miss you, Ben & Jerry’s Crème Brulee (2007-2012).
Meaning: We were surprised to find out that this emoji is called “confused face,” but on further reflection, it does have an aura of bewilderment.
When to use it: Trying to decide between an appetiser and dessert.
Meaning: Not to be confused with “astonished face” (below), this emoji is called “hushed face.” So many emoji offer degrees of emotion, which is useful for communicating nuance in famously un-nuanced Internet messaging. This is for a little surprise, good or bad.
When to use it: When your sibling announces they’re bringing their new partner to Christmas dinner.
Meaning: The “astonished face” emoji shows teeth, which is how you know they’re gaping in surprise.
When to use it: When you win the radio competition for free festival tickets.
Meaning: Another two emoji meanings that are often confused: This one, “weary face,” and “tired face” (below). The main difference is in the shape of the eyes, but they convey two separate feelings. Firstly, of being resigned to an unpleasant task, and secondly, of something being so great that you have no option but to give in to it.
When to use it: Your partner surprises you with a romantic weekend, and they’re just too sweet for you to deal with.
Meaning: Tired face really, really needs a vacation. Or, they just saw the world’s cutest penguin video.
When to use it: You’ve been up all night because your kid has a tummy bug.
Meaning: Although it’s called “confounded face,” this emoji is more commonly used to mean something has brought you to the point of tears. Some things are just so wonderful you want to cry. Other things are so terrible you also want to cry.
When to use it: When you lose the award. Also, when you win the award.
Meaning: Confusingly, this emoji is called “persevering face.” We have to admit, we were thinking of it more as a defeated face. It just goes to show the power of perspective.
When to use it: You have a brief setback that you will overcome, like your printer dying on the day your thesis is due. Where’s the nearest Staples?
Meaning: This emoji can be misconstrued as anger or annoyance, but it’s actually meant to depict a look of triumph. We think it works for both!
When to use it: When your kid finally takes the trash out without being asked.
Meaning: These emoji are another pair of confusing faces. The yellow one is called “angry face,” while the red one (which seems angrier) is called “pouting face.” Generally, however, the red face is used to show a greater degree of anger than the just very annoyed yellow face.
When to use it: When someone ate the leftovers you were planning to have for lunch.
Meaning: This guy looks super mad, doesn’t he? Pouting is just not a strong enough word!
When to use it: When someone threw away the leftovers you were planning to have for lunch.
Meaning: As far as cute emoji go, the see-no-evil monkey is definitely up there. His siblings are the hear-no-evil and speak-no-evil monkeys, otherwise known as the Three Wise Monkeys. This guy can’t believe what he’s seeing! (Or he can’t bear to look!)
When to use it: If something so crazy happens that it’s beyond belief (like your friend moving to Uzbekistan for a year) this is the emoji for you.
Meaning: These next two emoji meanings are also often confused; both are considered to mean praying, or a high five! However, this one is actually the “raised hands” emoji.
When to use it: Your sports team wins, or a work presentation goes really well. Pair with “triumphant face” for added oomph.
Meaning: In Japanese culture, “folded hands” means please, or thank you. Over here in the West, it’s often interpreted as praying or even high-fiving. Usually, though, it’s used to mean hope.
When to use it: You’re getting married. Outside. Without a tent. It’ll be fine!
Meaning: This emoji apparently means “OK,” as in, the arms are raised to make a circle for the O in OK. We don’t buy it, though! Most often people using this emoji meaning they’re dancing.
When to use it: It’s party time.
Meaning: More in the genre of confusing gesture emoji: “information desk woman.” That’s right, she’s not raising the roof or showing off her new bob haircut, she’s here to give you directions. Except no one knows that, so we just use this emoji to mean something along the lines of “you go, girl.”
When to use it: When your best gal pal applies for that dream job.
Meaning: Another emoji that comes from Japanese culture is this “bowing emoji.” Bowing is part of being polite, which is very important in Japan. Some people think this little guy is doing pushups or just having a lie-down. We always thought it was kind of a “we are not worthy” thing.
When to use it: When you meet your favourite celebrity.
Assumed meaning: Headache. Real meaning: Facepalm! That’s right, this handy emoji is meant to indicate embarrassment or frustration, with yourself and others.
When to use it: You forget your keys at the office. On a Friday night.
Meaning: Although this emoji looks like a shooting star or a comet, it’s actually meant to mean “dizzy,” as in seeing stars! We still think it looks more like a shooting star, though, and it’s usually used as such.
When to use it: To wish your friend a happy birthday, and let them know that they’re a star.
Meaning: There’s no way around it: this emoji looks rude. But the emoji meaning is not what you think! It’s called the “dashing away” emoji, as in a speeding car or sprinting person.
When to use it: When you’re hurrying to meet your pals for coffee. Just be sure to include a little running person next to it, so they don’t get the wrong idea.
Meaning: There are a lot of heart emoji, and they come in every color. But the emoji meanings can be confusing. This one is “growing heart” (you can see the lines around it as it increases in size).
When to use it: When you discover the true meaning of Christmas and your heart grows three sizes.
Meaning: This emoji means “beating heart,” and you can see the little sound waves coming off it if you look carefully!
When to use it: Be still, my heart! When your heart skips a beat, or someone makes it beat faster, this is the emoji to use.
Meaning: Two hearts, beating together… nope. What about revolving around each other? That’s what this emoji symbolises.
When to use it: Think of a cartoon character with hearts dancing around their head. That’s you.
Meaning: The “two hearts” emoji meaning is pretty simple. One heart is you, and the other heart is someone you love.
When to use it: When your best friend or partner goes with you to that thing they don’t like, just because you asked them to.
Meaning: This emoji may be the most mysterious emoji of all. It’s a little man, dressed in a suit… levitating. However. If you’re a ska fan, you may recognise this hovering guy as the rude boy exclamation mark found on records by the band The Specials. What can we say, Japan loves ska. Do we know what it means? Absolutely not.
When to use it: When you want to pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.
Meaning: The 100 emoji technically means “100 points,” but is often used as 100 percent.
When to use it: Your friend asks you if you want to go get ice cream. This also leaves the option open to get 100 ice creams.
Meaning: This emoji is a hole. Imagine a cartoon character quickly drawing a circle on the ground, then jumping into it. Or imagine yourself doing that if you often find your foot in your mouth.
When to use it: When you’re telling the story of the time you tripped on your shoelaces, bent down to lace them up, and ripped your pants, all on a first date. The hole is what you wished was there to swallow you up.
Meaning: Some emoji meanings are clear and obvious, others are like this one, which apparently means “anger.” If you’re an anime or manga fan, you may recognise this symbol as the veins popping out on the forehead of someone absolutely incandescent with rage.
When to use it: Send to that friend who’s been bugging you to watch that really long anime.
Meaning: This emoji looks like a flower, but its name is “fish cake with swirl.” In Japan, mashed fish is shaped into a log and sliced into cakes called kamaboko. Now you have a new emoji, and a new dish to try!
When to use it: Use to document your journey around the city, trying to track down a kamaboko.
Meaning: Government buildings look different everywhere, which is why we had no idea this was the “post office” emoji.
When to use it: When you’re sending out holiday gifts, but want to confuse your relatives.
Meaning: As Eiffel is to Paris, so this tower is to Tokyo. It was actually inspired by the design of La Tour Eiffel and is the second-tallest structure in Japan.
When to use it: When you visit Paris! Or Tokyo. Or Las Vegas.
Meaning: Not everywhere in the world is lucky enough to be blessed with natural hot springs, but the volcanic country of Japan definitely is! This emoji is the symbol for hot springs. We feel a little more relaxed just looking at it.
When to use it: When you finally splurge and buy that hot tub.
Meaning: This cute little jellyfish emoji is actually a wind chime emoji! Wind chimes like this are very common in Japan.
When to use it: Send to your partner as part of your campaign to take a vacation in Japan.
Meaning: Honestly, we don’t know why this one exists. There is already a mobile phone emoji, called “mobile phone emoji.” This one is called “mobile phone with arrow.” Didn’t your mum tell you pointing was rude?
When to use it: When you’re calling, but they’re not picking up their phone.
Meaning: This little chevron is the Japanese symbol for beginner; new drivers are required to affix one to their car. It’s called a shoshinsha mark, and is the sign of a newbie.
When to use it: Definitely slap one on the new roller skates you got during lockdown.
Meaning: Ah, the curly loop. Seriously, that’s its name. It’s possibly also the emoji meaning. We don’t know either.
When to use it: Wingardium leviosa?
Meaning: Ah, the double curly loop. This one has “going on and on” vibes.
When to use it: When you’re in the longest meeting of your life. Isn’t it time for lunch?!
Meaning: Karaoke is big in Japan, and this little M emoji is the part alternation mark, telling you that it’s time for the next singer!
When to use it: To organise that karaoke room night you’ve been wanting to.
Meaning: This emoji is confusing at first glance, but in fact, stands for the words No Good.
When to use it: When you’re so busy you definitely can’t make that 2pm call.
Meaning: The “hollow red circle” emoji. This is another emoji meaning that’s been lost in translation; in Japan, the circle is used as an alternative to a tick to indicate that something is correct. Maybe it’s the red colour that gives it bad connotations.
When to use it: When your friend’s message contains a typo, give them grade school flashbacks with this nice red circle.
Meaning: Digital security is important, and this “locked with pen” emoji is a shorthand for a file or document that is safely locked.
When to use it: After you’ve digitally signed that contract.
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