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Emoji and Dingbats

Q: What are emoji?

A: Emoji are “picture characters” originally associated with cellular telephone usage in Japan, but now popular worldwide. The word emoji comes from the Japanese (e ≅ picture) + (moji ≅ written character).

Emoji are often pictographs—images of things such as faces, weather, vehicles and buildings, food and drink, animals and plants—or icons that represent emotions, feelings, or activities. In cellular phone usage, many emoji characters are presented in color (sometimes as a multicolor image), and some are presented in animated form, usually as a repeating sequence of two to four images—for example, a pulsing red heart.

Q: Where can I find out more about emoji in Unicode?

A: See unicode.org/emoji, which points to a number of different resources, especially Unicode Technical Report #51, Unicode Emoji (UTR #51).

Q: Are emoji the same thing as emoticons?

A: Not exactly. Emoticons (from “emotion” plus “icon”) are specifically intended to depict facial expression or body posture as a way of conveying emotion or attitude in e-mail and text messages. They originated as ASCII character combinations such as :-) to indicate a smile—and by extension, a joke—and :-( to indicate a frown. In East Asia, a number of more elaborate sequences have been developed, such as (")(-_-)(") showing an upset face with hands raised. Over time, many systems began replacing such sequences with images, and also began providing ways to input emoticon images directly, such as a menu or palette. The emoji sets used by Japanese cell phone carriers contain a large number of characters for emoticon images, along with many other non-emoticon emoji.

Q: What are the most popular emoji characters?

A. The emojitracker.com site tracks the realtime use of many emoji in Twitter, so you can see the most and least used emoji characters there. The Instagram and Swiftkey reports on Emoji Press are also interesting.

Q: Can you point me to some examples of emoji characters in Unicode?

A: The emoji are spread throughout many blocks of Unicode. See Unicode Emoji Charts for a listing of the emoji characters.

Q: Do emoji characters have to look the same wherever they are used?

A: No, they don’t have to look the same. For example, here are just some of the possible images for U+1F36D LOLLIPOP, U+1F36E CUSTARD, U+1F36F HONEY POT, and U+1F370 SHORTCAKE:

emoji example

In other words, any pictorial representation of a lollipop, custard, honey pot or shortcake respectively, whether a line drawing, gray scale, or colored image (possibly animated) is considered an acceptable rendition for the given emoji. However, a design that is too different from other vendors’ representations may cause interoperability problems: see Design Guidelines in UTR #51.

Q: What about diversity?

A: As with the examples of emoji characters representing food items above, The Unicode Standard does not require a particular appearance for characters that depict people or body parts, such as U+1F474 OLDER MAN or U+270B RAISED HAND. In fact, UTR #51 recommends that such depictions be as neutral or generic as possible with respect to physical appearance, for example using non-realistic colors for skin tone. Similarly, characters whose name does not require a particular gender, such as U+1F477 CONSTRUCTION WORKER, should be depicted in a gender-neutral way.

However, many emoji users desire to use emoji for people and body parts that display a variety of more realistic skin tones. To support this, many such emoji may be followed by an emoji modifier character that can indicate one of 5 skin tones, based on the Fitzpatrick scale. See Diversity in UTR #51.

Of course, there are many other types of diversity in human appearance besides different skin tones, including different hair styles and color. It is beyond the scope of Unicode to provide an encoding-based mechanism for representing every aspect of human appearance diversity that emoji users might want to indicate. The best approach for communicating very specific human images—or any type of image in which preservation of specific appearance is very important—is the use of embedded graphics as described in What is the longer term plan for emoji?

See also What about characters whose name specifies a color?

Q: How were emoji originally encoded on Japanese cell phones?

A: Cell phone carriers in Japan had long encoded some emoji in Shift-JIS and ISO-2022 as extensions of the JIS X 0208 character set. A set of 722 emoji, called the Japanese carrier emoji set, is the union of the emoji encoded by the three most popular cell phone carriers in Japan. These carrier emoji characters were interchanged as plain text by millions of people daily (in SMS text messages and e-mail subject lines, for example), and needed to be handled by e-mail systems, search engines, publishing systems, databases, and so on.

Q: How were emoji originally encoded in Unicode?

A: 114 characters are mapped to sequences of one or more characters available in Unicode before Version 6.0. The other 608 characters in the initial set of 722 are mapped to sequences of one or more characters added in Unicode 6.0.

Characters that are separate in the extended JIS X 0208 sets used by the three major cell phone carriers in Japan are mapped to separate characters in Unicode in what is known as the Emoji Source Separation Rule. For example, the carrier sets include a character mapped to U+1F3B5 MUSICAL NOTE; this could not be unified with U+266A EIGHTH NOTE, because both exist as separate characters in the extended JIS sets used by all three of the major cell phone carriers in Japan.

Q: Do emoji characters have single semantics?

A: No. Because emoji characters are treated as pictographs, they are encoded in Unicode based primarily on their general appearance, not on an intended semantic. In fact, when used as emoji, many of these characters acquire multiple meanings based on their appearance; for example, an emoji character for “bank” which includes the letters “BK” has taken on in Japan the secondary meaning “bakkureru” (a slang term for evading one’s responsibilities). The meaning of each emoji may vary depending on language, culture, and context.

Q: Does the Unicode character name define the meaning of an emoji character?

A: The character name is a unique identifier, but may not encompass all the possible meanings of an emoji character, and in some cases may even be misleading. There are annotations in the Unicode Charts that help to define the intended meanings and usage.

Q: How many emoji characters are in Unicode now?

A: 1,281 characters or character sequences are recommended as emoji in Unicode 8.0. This number does not include the combinations of emoji modifiers and joiner sequences that may be supported, which adds many more. See Which Characters are Emoji in UTR #51.

Q: Will more emoji characters be added?

A: Yes. It is anticipated that roughly 60 characters would be added per year, until longer-term solutions come into play. Moreover, the Consortium may decide that some other current characters should be treated as emoji. Other features may change, such as the characters used as emoji modifier bases. Much of this depends on how emoji are handled by vendors, since developing customary usage is important in determining the Unicode recommendation and guidelines for interoperability.

Q: How should emoji be displayed?

A: While emoji symbols may be presented using color and animation (“emoji presentation”), they can also be presented as using a plain black & white “text presentation”. For guidelines on which characters should be displayed with an emoji presentation and how, see Presentation Style in UTR #51.

Q: Is there any way to control the emoji presentation?

A: Certain characters can be followed by a special character called a variation selector to request a particular appearance: U+FE0F for the emoji style (typically colored), and U+FE0E for the text style (black and white). Only certain characters qualify: the exact characters are listed in the file StandardizedVariants.

Q: What about characters whose names include WHITE or BLACK?

A: Names of symbols such as BLACK MEDIUM SQUARE or WHITE MEDIUM SQUARE are not meant to indicate that the corresponding character must be presented in black or white, respectively; rather, the use of “black” and “white” in the names is generally just to contrast filled versus outline shapes, or a darker color fill versus a lighter color fill. Similarly, in other symbols such as the hands U+261A BLACK LEFT POINTING INDEX and U+261C WHITE LEFT POINTING INDEX, the words “white” and “black” also refer to outlined versus filled, and do not indicate skin color.

Q: What about other colors in the name?

A: Other colors in names, such as BLUE HEART or ORANGE BOOK, are the recommended appearance when the characters are rendered in color. (The black and white images in the Unicode charts use various shading techniques as a stand-in for color.)

Q: What is the difference between emoji and dingbats?

A: Most of the characters in the Dingbats block are derived from a well-established set of glyphs, the ITC Zapf Dingbats series 100, which constitutes the industry standard “Zapf Dingbat” font currently available in most laser printers. Emoji and dingbats have some similarities (and a ​few ​characters in the Dingbats block​ are treated as emoji​). However, while there is often a great deal of flexibility in the range of glyph shapes that may be used for presentation of emoji, most characters in the Dingbats block are expected to be presented with glyph shapes that closely align with those shown in the Unicode Standard, when shown with a “text presentation​​”.

Q: Does the Unicode Consortium design the emoji used on my phone and elsewhere?

A: No. The Unicode Consortium provides character code charts that show a representative glyph (in a black-and-white text presentation), but the colorful emoji presentation on phones and computers is up to each vendor.

The Unicode Consortium is not a designer or purveyor of emoji images, nor is it the owner of any of the color images used in emoji documentation, nor does it negotiate licenses for their use. Inquiries for permission to use vendor images should be directed to those vendors, not to the Unicode Consortium. See Rights to Emoji Images in UTR #51.

Q: I’d like my favorite emoji added to my phone. Can the Unicode Consortium add it?

A: The Unicode Consortium does not make or sell fonts, images, or icons. For concerns about the emoji and flag symbols available in any particular application or mobile platform, please contact the manufacturer. Their software determines what characters are available on your device.

Q: How can I get the Unicode Consortium to add a Unicode emoji?

A: Adding characters to an encoding standard involves a long, formal process which can take two years or more.

Q: How are new emoji selected?

A: The process is described under Annex C: Selection Factors in UTR #51.

Q: Why is the process so long and complicated?

A: Unicode is the foundation for all modern software: that’s how all mobile phones, desktops, and other computers represent all text of every language. You are using Unicode every time you type a key on your phone or desktop computer, and every time you look at a web page or text in an application.

It is thus very important that the standard be stable, and that every character that goes into it be scrutinized carefully.

Q: Once the Unicode Consortium encodes an emoji character, when will it appear on my phone?

A: As part of normal software release cycles, platform vendors periodically make decisions about which Unicode characters to support in new versions of their software. Supporting new emoji characters involves additions to fonts, enhancements to emoji input methods (keyboards or palettes), and often updates to libraries that determine character properties and behavior (such as word selection or line breaking). Depending on release cycle length and timing relative to a Unicode release, it may take ​a year or so​ for new Unicode characters to appear on phones and other platforms.

Q: Is that why the Unicode 7.0 emoji have taken a while?

A: There was an extra complication for Unicode 7.0. Of the many characters added, some were suitable as emoji and some were not. Until the publication of UTR #51 in mid 2015, it was not clear to vendors what the recommended set was.

Q: Are there any cases where it is faster than that?

A: Yes, in some cases vendors prepare ahead of time, and are able to release new emoji right around the same time as the Unicode release. Some vendors did this with some of the new emoji modifiers in Unicde 8.0, for example.

Q: Why can’t I find my national flag in my mobile application or on my smart phone?

A: For concerns about the emoji and flag symbols available in any particular application or mobile platform, please contact the manufacturer. Their software determines what characters are available on your device.

Q: But the Unicode Standard includes other flags, why don’t you include my flag?

A: The Unicode Standard encodes a set of regional indicator symbols. These can be used in pairs to represent any territory that has a Unicode region subtag as defined by CLDR, such as “DE” for Germany. The pairs are typically displayed as national flags: there are currently 257 such combinations. For more information, see Annex B: Flags in UTR #51.

Q: What is the longer term plan for emoji?

A: The Unicode Consortium encourages the use of embedded graphics (a.k.a. “stickers”) as a longer-term solution, since they allow much more freedom of expression. See Longer Term Solutions in UTR #51.

Q. Are emoji a new language?

A. Emoji aren’t really a “language”; they don’t have the grammar or vocabulary to substitute for written language. But in social media, people like to use them to add color and whimsy to their messages, and to help to make up for the lack of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

They also add a “useful ambiguity” to messages, allowing the writer to convey many different possible concepts at the same time. You can probably view them more like borrowings of foreign words rather than a language by themselves.

Q. But aren't emoji universal?

A. ​No, emoji are not necessarily "universal". ​The images represented by emoji ​​can have or develop very different overtones and usage depending on a user's language and culture. People can use combinations that refer to specific words in their language, such as a bombshell movie in English:

People also use emoji for verbs or adjectives as well as nouns; when they do, they often to follow the order used by their language. Some languages put verbs at the end, for example; others put adjectives after nouns.


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