NPR : News

Simmering Online Debate Shows Emoji Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Images, GIFs and emojis — particularly the latter — have morphed into ways we express our feelings. They've quickly replaced words and sentences in our texts, tweets and emails.

So, what is this emoji? (As I'm writing this, it's consistently been the 25th most-tweeted emoji, according to the real-time emojitracker.) On Thursday, a report from a local Philadelphia TV station re-ignited a debate and got people all up in arms. (Or should I say, up in hands?)

An anchor suggests it's someone praying. "What we've discovered is the intention of this emoji is to represent a high-five," he says. "But a lot of people really, truly believe it's someone praying." (How they've "discovered" such a claim is unclear.)

And if you want to play by the book, turn the question to your iPhone: Highlight the emoji and prompt your iPhone to "Speak" it. It'll tell you that the emoji is "hands folded in prayer." And if you think of how folks usually high-five one another — using opposite hands, with thumbs crossed — this makes sense.

The Emojipedia doesn't choose one meaning, but says it varies depending on the cultural context. In Japanese culture, it says, it can mean "sorry" or "thank you."

I tossed the question to folks on Twitter:

When we think about emojis and what they mean, we have to consider how these symbols have evolved into their own language. Emojis aren't quite a universal form of communication; their meanings are malleable and often develop in unique ways as we build relationships with the people we're texting or tweeting. I assign different meanings to the same emojis based on inside jokes with friends, moods and specific situations.

Jessica Bennett wrote for The New York Times:

"There's also a certain subjective quality to the sequences. Depending on whether you think the little face with the teardrop on his forehead is sweating or crying, your friend may have either just been dumped or been to SoulCycle. 'I think it's clear that a rough grammar exists for emoji, or is at least emerging,' said Colin Rothfels, a developer who maintains a Twitter feed, @anagramatron, that collects tweets (and thus emoji) that are anagrams."

But if I had to choose one meaning for the hands-pressed-together emoji, I'd probably go with this one:

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit


A Photographer Gets Old — Over And Over — In 'The Many Sad Fates'

Photographer Phillip Toledano lost both his parents, an aunt and an uncle and began to wonder — what other dark turns did life have in store? He explores the possibilities in a new short film.

This Historian Wants You To Know The Real Story Of Southern Food

Michael Twitty wants credit given to the enslaved African-Americans who were part of Southern cuisine's creation. So he goes to places like Monticello to cook meals slaves would have eaten.

Barbershop: Trump's Comments And Latinos

Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity, Denise Galvez of Latinas for Trump and columnist Gustavo Arellano discuss Donald Trump's week of comments about a former Miss Universe.

We May Die, But Our Tweets Can Live Forever

A new exhibit explores what people leave behind online after they die. BuzzFeed senior writer Doree Shafrir discusses what it was like to attend her own "digital funeral."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.