"Word" of the Year

Dr. James Emery White

Here, in a single image and a single designation, is one of the greatest reflections of the massive change in culture – and the separation of generations – of our day:

Yes, it is a pictograph; or as it is more commonly called, an emoji. But not just any emoji. It is called the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji.

But there’s more.

Oxford Dictionary has named it the 2015 “Word of the Year.” And for the first time, that “word” is a pictograph. While emojis have been around since the late 1990s, “2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely.” This particular emoji was selected because it was identified as the most used emoji globally in 2015. 

In case you are a closet Luddite, an emoji is “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication.” The term itself is Japanese in origin “and comes from e ‘picture’ + moji ‘letter, character.’ The similarity to the English word emoticon has helped its memorability and rise in use.” An emoticon, by the way, is a “facial expression composed of keyboard characters, such as :), rather than a stylized image.”

So why is this such a reflection of our day?

First, because it reflects the cultural revolution that has come with technology in general, and the smartphone world in particular.

Much of the 90’s was pre-internet (except for very, very early adopters). And the smart phone? Non-existent. The ubiquitous nature of those two things alone would decisively divide any generation. “Growing up with a supercomputer in your pocket connected to most of the world’s population and knowledge,” writes David Pakman, “has created an irreversible pattern of behavior unlikely to revert to the ways of previous generations.” Or as an article in the New York Times noted, “a 14-year-old in 2015 really does inhabit a substantially different world than one of 2005.” 

A second reason it’s a key reflection of our day is because it transcends linguistic borders. It is a form of communication that matches the inter-connected world of the internet that knows no geo-political or language boundaries. 

But a final reason that it’s such a key reflection of our day is because it reflects the changing nature of communication itself. I have long argued that there is a need to recapture a sense of the visual if we are going to connect with this world (read “The Importance of the Visual”).

But when it comes to reaching the latest and largest Generation – Generation Z – emojis are part of their language. The research of Sparks and Honey has found that Generation Z “speak in emoticons and emojis. Symbols and glyphs provide context and create subtext so they can have private conversations. Emoji alphabets and icon ‘stickers’ replace text with pictures.” 

You may want to re-read that last paragraph. It’s a stunning evolution in the very nature of language. 

A language we best learn to speak – if, that is, we want to reach the next generation.

James Emery White



“Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015 is…,” Oxford Dictionaries Blog, November 16, 2015, read online.

Hannah Furness, “Oxford Dictionary swaps Word of the Year for public's favourite emoji,” The Telegraph, November 17, 2015, read online.

David Pakman, “May I Have Your Attention, Please?,” August 10, 2015,, read online.

Alex Williams, “Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z,” The New York Times, September 20, 2015, read online.

“Meet Generation Z: Forget Everything You Learned About Millennials,” Sparks and Honey, June 17, 2014, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.