When is the last time you used the word abacus, fountain pen or bison?

Your answer is likely “not recently” yet all of these items are among the approved emojis that come standard on almost every phone. I recently had occasion to look at the list of emojis more closely and was surprised to find so many that seem irrelevant: a fountain pen with a padlock, mammoth, Rolodex, dodo or ninja. Do people really have a use for these symbols?

Emojis are sometimes seen as superfluous, but they were developed with a practical application. In 1982, Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University started using the basic (-: and )-: symbols – what he called “joke markers” — so that people could tell whether the written communication was serious or not. I don’t think he envisioned the plethora of symbols that we have today; we have the Japanese to thank for that. The idea of symbols caught on first in Japan, in part because of anime, and the emojis as we know it were originally only offered on Japanese phones. Not until 2007 did Google ask the Unicode Consortium to create universal standards so the symbols would work in all formats, and starting in 2011 the emoji keyboard was first offered outside Japan.

So, today, you have access to 3304 symbols (counting the various skin tones and variations of colors), allowing you to enhance your communication should you want to visually tell your friend to bring the accordion, eggplant, mousetrap and plunger when they come over to visit!

Seriously, before you dismiss emojis as nothing more than childish fluff, keep their original intent in mind. If a symbol can help you clarify your message, it’s better to add one than to have your intent lost in translation.

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