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Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is … not a word

If you've ever been stuck on a text response and simply sent an emoji to compensate for your lack of words, you officially have company in the unlikeliest of places.

The Oxford Dictionaries announced yesterday that its word of the year isn't actually a word at all but an emoji. Specifically, this one:

Oxford Dictionary

That's right: "Face with tears of joy" is how Oxford will forever remember 2015.

This marks the first time a "pictograph" has been named word of the year. Past winners have included "podcast" (2005), "carbon footprint" (2007), "unfriend" (2009), "selfie" (2013), and "vape" (2014).

Now, you'd be perfectly within your rights to protest, "But it's called word of the year!" Indeed, it is. And 2015's shortlist included several actual words and phrases, like "dark web," "ad blocker," and "lumbersexual." But Oxford's requirements are a little trickier than the straightforward word of the year label implies. As stated on its website:

"The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word or expression that we can see has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date.

...This year, instead of choosing a traditional word or expression, Oxford Dictionaries has chosen an example of this type of pictographic script to represent the sharp increase in popularity of emojis across the world in 2015."

As for Oxford's definition of "pictograph": "a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase."

See? Technically, "face with tears of joy" is a pictorial stand-in for a "word or phrase," which in turn is eligible for word of the year, so this is all aboveboard.

However: nah.

Choosing an emoji as word of the year is a cop-out

Distilling a whole year into a single word is an unenviable task, but "face with tears of joy" says nothing of significance about 2015 — and if it does, it's doing so in quite a roundabout, smug manner.

Oxford argues that the choice makes sense because emoji saw a huge uptick in usage this year, and that its partnership with predictive mobile keyboard app SwiftKey proved that "face with tears of joy" is the most used emoji. (According to SwiftKey's research, this particular emoji makes up 20 percent of emojis used in the UK and 17 percent in the US.)

Emojis have risen in prominence this year, sure. After all, 2015 saw the long-awaited introduction of cheese and taco emojis, and it was reported in July that Hollywood was embroiled in a "bidding war" over the rights to an emoji movie. This year also saw the long-awaited introduction of more diverse emojis featuring multiple skin tones — any of which would have been a more meaningful choice than "face with tears of joy."

But the underlying context of choosing "face with tears of joy" as word of the year is that there were no words that spoke quite as loudly as emoji did in 2015, and that simply isn't true.

I get it — superlatives are tough. And it's not that "lumbersexual" would have been so much more revealing, or interesting. But even a phrase like "Netflix and chill" would’ve been more representative of "a word or expression that we can see has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date." Because no matter how much we communicate with emoji these days, the English language isn't Wingdings — at least not yet.