Common sense might lead you to believe that “emoji” is simply a variation of “emoticon,” but Japanese common sense tells a whole different story.
We all know emoji as those convenient little pictures that punctuate our tweets and emails letting people know when we’re being sarcastic or facetious. They’re a slicker, modern version of those crude emoticons constructed from preexisting keyboard characters like ;) to express happiness or >8[ to symbolize a grumpy puppet… or something. I don’t know.
The similarities between emoticons and emoji would certainly suggest the names are simply variations of one another. As we all know “emoticon” is just a portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon.” So with emoji being an invention of Shigetaka Kurita working with NTT DoCoMo we could assume that “emoji” is a similar portmanteau of “emotion” and the Japanese word for written character “ji” (字).
The way “ji” works is as a suffix with the opening part explaining what type of character it is. For example, “kan” which refers to China and “ji” make “kanji” or “Chinese characters” and “su” meaning “count” and “ji” make “suji” meaning “number.” So it’s not a stretch to assume “emoji” follows the same logic but with a slight English twist.
However, one more example would be “moji” which simply means “word.” Now, if we slap on the Japanese word for picture, “e” (pronounced “eh”), we get “emoji” or “picture word.”
▼ “E” (picture) + “moji” (word) = “emoji” (picture word)
Although common knowledge in Japan, this open secret caused a bit of a stir when posted on the Today I Learned page of Reddit leading to comments such as:
“If this is the case then everyone mispronounces it. It would be “eh” Moji, not “ee” Moji.”
“I thought it was emo(tion) + ji (letter)”
“And I did not know that! Thanks.”
“Etymology sure is an emojional rollercoaster!”
“Huh, an instance of ‘found in translation.'”
“Dafuq! I didn’t know!”
Some also figured that rather than a pure coincidence, there was an intentional effort to make the word similar to “emoticon.” It’s possible, but emoticons weren’t used in Japan very much. Instead, kaomoji (顔文字) — where “kao” means “face,” hence “face words” — were the preferred digital smileys.
▼ Kaomoji tend to be more detailed and less ambiguous than older emoticons such as this one that means “my eyeball just fell out and exploded.”
If you would like to learn more about the fun of kaomoji and beyond, check out our tutorial on some Japanese IME functions.
As for the true meaning of “emoji,” the lack of “emotion” being a part of it makes perfect sense, considering facial expressions only make up a fraction of the entire emoji catalog. Unless “post office” and “tractor” are simply feelings I haven’t gotten in touch with yet.