Emoticons vs. Emoji: What's the Difference?

You’ll find that a lot of people, including professional journalists, will use the terms “emoticon” and “emoji” interchangeably to refer to a whole family of symbols that are better known colloquially as smiley faces. If you’ve been texting on your phone or communicating over the Internet for any length of time, then you’re bound to have encountered them on more than one occasion. In truth, there is a very critical difference that separates emoticons and emoji and it’s actually very easy to understand.

The term “emoticon” is a portmanteau of the words “emotion” and “icon.” The point is that you are able to use plain text in such a way to express an emotion. There are no real special characters being used and the majority of emoticons have the “face” of the smiley face in a horizontally-oriented fashion such that you have to tilt your head to the left to view it correctly.

Most commonly, you’ll find a colon used in place of the eyes. With a “smiley” face, the colon is paired with a closing parentheses. With a “frowny” face, the colon is then paired with an opening parentheses.

: ) and : (

You just have to remove the extra space that I’ve placed between the colons and the parentheses. Now, you might be asking why I put the extra space there in the first place. Well, the way that WordPress is configured, it’s “smart” enough to convert what would normally be an emoticon into an emoji (and I’m not really sure how to override it).

The term “emoji” is also a portmanteau, but it is Japanese in origin. The “e” part roughly translates as “picture,” while the “moji” roughly translates as “character.” In other words, “emoji” translates as “picture character” or as a pictograph. Rather than using simple plain text, emoji are actually the “smiley faces” that are characters upon themselves.

🙂 and 🙁

The multiple examples depicted in the image at the top of this post are a very small sample and you’ve likely seen many others, including those used by Snapchat, WhatsApp, and a range of other online communication tools.

The emoji “characters” are treated the same way as non-Western characters by your computer, just like Japanese or Korean characters. What this means is that the software must support and recognize them in order to be displayed correctly.

And while somewhat related to both, kaomoji are something else entirely. Also with Japanese origins, these are “smiley faces” that are read straight on like most emoji but they use plain text (sometimes in addition to the special character set needed to write in Japanese). Simple examples might include O.o and (x_x), though there are far more complex variations.

Realistically, it`s hardly a big deal if you use the word “emoticon” when you really should be talking about “emoji,” but now that you know the difference, you have no excuse for using the wrong word at the wrong time. 😛