Emoji (n.) - 💩🕴️🗾😉
A small image used mostly in informal digital communication.
History & Etymology
First some background on the technological problem that helped emoji come into existence.
In english we have 26 letters with an upper and lower case character. This gives us 52 characters plus ten digits and a large handful of other characters. So when a computer system to represent english text was created it only needed room for about 100 or so characters to fit everything that was needed for a thorough representation of our language, but not all languages are so simple. Japanese for has two syllabaries called Hiragana and Katakana with around 46 characters each, they also regularly use the roman alphabet(the same one we use), plus they have over 2,000 pictographs borrowed from China called Kanji. With this quantity of characters to represent in your communications system it’s going to require much more space than standard English.
The system that was created for Japanese had more than enough room for all of the Kanji and their other characters. Their were locations left over for more characters than they needed. So a brilliant Japanese software engineer was watching the news and saw the images used by the weatherman to show on the screen, and he thought why couldn’t we use these images in our text messages to shorten messages because of the character limit of SMS messages. And that’s where the idea for the first emoji came from.
All of the mobile phone manufacturers in Japan followed suit creating their own sets of emoji, and because of the use of Kanji in Japanese the people were already used to using pictures or pictographs in regular language, so emoji caught on fast.
Mean while the Unicode Consortium, formed in 1991, was gathering languages and characters from around the world to make one unified character set to simplify international communications. When they got to Japanese they were expecting the Kanji to be a large chunk of characters, but they discovered that all of the mobile phone manufacturers had created all of this other characters. The people of Japan were actually using these extra characters in their everyday communications, so they could very well leave out these symbols. The Unicode Consortium didn’t expect anyone outside of Japan to actually use these characters... Boy were they wrong.
After Apple integrated Unicode into their iPhones, Americans quickly discovered that they could send smiling piles of poo to each other, and the rest is history. Now we have pillows, toys, playing cards, and even a movie about emojis.
That’s the story of the technology, but I’m here to talk about the language. The word emoji is what we call a borrowing; it’s a word that is borrowed from another language. The funny thing about English is that most of its words are borrowings from other languages like spanish, french, latin, greek, and many others. After World War II America's relationship with Japan got a lot closer and Japanese began borrowing a lot of our words and we absorbed a some of theirs in return. They were mostly cultural words like bonsai, sushi, teriyaki, and so on. Emoji is just like those words directly taken from Japanese.
As far as the origin of the word, one might think that it has something to do with the word emoticon, you know like those little faces you can make with a colon and a parentheses, but that’s not actually the case. The word emoji is much more closely related to the Japanese word Kanji. Kanji is a compound Japanese word of the characters China or Hon plus ji the Japanese word for character. Emoji similarly is a compound of the word for picture 絵 (pronounced e) and the word 文字 (pronounced moji).
This word is analogous to the english word pictogram.