This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on topics such as language and social media, English around the world, and language and creativity. With his colleagues he produced the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He tweets at @philipseargeant.
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How do you say ‘cockwomble’ in emoji?
Is it possible to swear in emoji? According to BuzzFeed, the answer’s a definite yes. In what has all the elements of an archetypal BuzzFeed post, the site provides a handy run-down of twenty-one useful emoji expletives. This includes staples such as ‘bastard’ 👪🚫💍 and ‘wanker’ 👐⚓️. Then there are the slightly more esoteric terms like ‘cockwomble’ 🐓🐹, which led the vanguard in the Scottish anti-Trump protests last summer. And finally there are a few useful compounds such as ‘bollock-faced shit licker’ 🍒😃💩👅.
While emoji may have started life as a way of adding fairly straightforward emotion-related context to a message – a smiling face at the end of a sentence to indicate that you’re joking, etc. – as their popularity has grown, so has the range of functions for which they’re used. Nowadays they can be employed for everything from expressing political allegiances, to conveying threats and combating cyberbullying.
The BuzzFeed list, which complements their anthologies of other important cultural phenomena such as emoji sexting and emoji Disney princesses, suggests that this functional range now stretches to profanity. Given that swearing is one of the most emotive forms of language use, this would seem a natural development.
The creativity of cursing
But are these examples really swearing in the same way that verbal language is? Can typing 🐓🐹 in a WhatsApp message have the same force as actually calling someone a ‘cockwomble’ when the atmosphere gets heated in a face-to-face debate?
If one of the key underlying principles of swearwords is that they work as a sort of linguistic weapon which automatically triggers negative emotions in the brain of the listener, then emoji profanities of this sort don’t qualify particularly well. The roots of almost all swearwords refer to a limited number of concepts: religious or supernatural beings, bodily functions and the organs related to them, disease, sexuality, and groups which are held in some contempt in society. Emoji however, with their regulated set of icons, have very few words native to their own writing system for any of these categories. As such, the BuzzFeed terms are all compounds, which rely on translations from the English.
For example, 🐓🐹 is a calque: a word that’s borrowed from another language through direct translation. In this case the two component parts of the English word are rendered with the icons that individually represent them (although with a bit of poetic licence being taken in the substitution of the ‘hamster face’ for a womble). 👐⚓️, on the other hand, is a rebus: a linguistic device which uses pictures to represent part or all of a word. Here, the ‘w’ indicated by the conjoined hands is appended to ‘anchor’ to approximate the pronunciation of the English word. And 👪🚫💍 works by creating a mini-narrative from concepts suggested by the three glyphs, which then represents the literal meaning of ‘bastard’.
All three are therefore creative puzzles which needs to be deciphered. And because of this they don’t have the immediacy of swearwords, which reduces much of their pragmatic force.
There is, of course, already a conventionalised use of symbols in written swearing which is used specifically to avoid causing offense. This is the use of the asterisk – or occasionally a mix of other random typographical marks, known as grawlix – as a substitute for some or all of the letters in the chosen expletive. Writing f*** or @#$%&! allows you to use or report on the expletive without actually harnessing its offensive power. It’s the written equivalent of altering a component of the pronunciation in speech, resulting in ‘fudge’, ‘flippin’, ‘silly beggar’, and countless other phonetic euphemisms.
And while emoji aren’t meant as euphemistic evasions, they nevertheless depend on people interpreting them as rude or taboo to qualify as bona fide swearwords. At the moment, therefore, it’s likely that only those well versed in a sort of ‘creative emoji literacy’ are likely to appreciate them as profanities.
A lot will depend on how conventions of use develop, of course, and the extent to which any of these terms become embedded in communication practices. If they begin to be used regularly as expletives – and, equally importantly, are avoided or stigmatised because of the way they’re used – then they may yet acquire the pragmatic force of explicit swearwords.
A similar process appears to be happening in other contexts. For example, there are suggestions that emoji are now being used for sexual harassment, particularly within the context of non-consensual sexting. And already there are organisations offering legal advice on how to avoid the problematic use of emoji in the workplace. In these cases the real-life consequences of how and what emoji are being used to communicate are colouring their cultural meaning.
Native emoji swearing
Beyond the BuzzFeed-type compounds there are, in fact, one or two native emoji for swearing already. In 2014 the Unicode Consortium (the body which oversees all thing emoji) introduced the middle finger character 🖕. As a direct iconic representation of the real-life gesture, this is a fairly straightforward translation, and were you to use it in a message the meaning would be pretty transparent. Indeed, in certain countries such as the United Arab Emirates, sending this emoji has already been designated a criminal offence, in exactly the same way as making the gesture in person is.
Even in more swear-happy cultures where it was a popular addition when first introduced, its directness has not been to everyone’s liking. Chris Plante in The Verge, for example, wrote that while he respected the emoji’s straightforwardness, ‘I’ve always enjoyed the creativity previous emoji collections have required of people who want to express disapproval or rage’.
In other words, although it’s now perfectly possible to express this sort of meaning with blunt concision in emoji, doing so somehow goes against the playfulness and creativity that for many is an essential part of their character.
Which brings us finally to the poop emoji 💩. This again would seem to have the potential to be a native profanity. And yet it’s a long way from being a straightforward translation of ‘shit’. As the founder of Emojipedia, Jeremy Burge, commented to ABC News, you can pretty much ‘use it anywhere, and people don’t quite know what you mean by it. You can use it in any context’, and for a whole range of different meanings.
This is borne out by the way it’s been taken up both online and off. For example, you can buy a whole range of merchandise featuring the poop emoji, from earrings to slippers. It’s also been co-opted into political discourse, for both negative and positive purposes. So when someone discovered a bug in Donald Trump’s website last year the first thing they did was insert the emoji on his homepage. At the other end of the spectrum the charity Water Aid adopted it as part of a campaign to raise awareness of their work in providing clean water and toilets to the billions of people who lack them. So it combines the attention-grabbing element of a profanity, but with a certain endearing quality.
As the Unicode Consortium’s FAQ says, ‘people like to use [emoji] to add color and whimsy to their messages’. And the pile of poop, with its ‘wide eyes and … dazzling grin’, is perhaps the perfect symbol of how this sort of whimsy extends even to the unruly world of swearing.
Note: emoji created via iEmoji.com.