Saturday, April 08, 2017

Picture This

The location: Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. The date: September 19, 1982. The time: 11:44AM. The scene: A bunch of computer scientists on an early interconnected bulletin board, the precursor to the internet, having a back-and-forth about how to flag any jokes they were posting. Some suggested an asterisk, while others suggested a percentage sign. One researcher, Keith Wright, thought that the best symbol would be an ampersand because "Surely everyone will agree that ‘&' is the funniest character on the keyboard. It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter). It sounds funny (say it loud and fast three times). I just know if I could get my nose into the vacuum of the CRT it would even smell funny!"

Fellow researcher Scott Fahlman had a different idea. In a moment that ranks up there with the groundbreaking leaps made by Gutteneberg and Whitney and Jobs, Fahlman suggested that a sequence of characters would be best. You can see the entire thread online, but the relevant portion goes thusly: "I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-). Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(." And with that, the smiley face and frowney face emoticons were born.

As their use grew and email and texting spread, creative users added more and more variations. At their core, emoticons were sequences of existing characters that, if you squinted and turned your head this way or that, sort of conveyed an idea without having to use actual words. As they grew in popularity, more and more people starting using them, especially in Japan, a country whose very language is basically a series of pictographs. Phone company DoCoMo noticed this, and decided to jump on the bandwagon big time. But they took the idea one step further: rather than being a series of characters, they created a standard set of symbols which existed as entities unto themselves. And so the emoji was born.

What started as 176 individual symbols including a shoe, a train and a snowman has evolved over 9 generations to include nearly 2000 pictographs. You can argue that taken together they constitute the newest and fastest growing language in the world, one that transcends cultures and borders. As administered by the Unicode Consortium, an international organization devoted to developing, maintaining and promoting software internationalization standards and data, the "tongue" is regularly updated as users ask for more and more symbols to help them better communicate entirely in pictures. The most recent iteration, released last year, includes new and requested emojis representing, among other things, peanuts, a drum and a pregnant woman (see if you can use those three in a sentence).  

As you scroll through the list you'll see a running tally of mainstream symbols representing all the important things in life. Dog? Yup. Flower? Of course. Umbrella, tennis, motorcycle? Yes, yes and yes. But to some, there is a glaring omission. If you wanted to describe your breakfast there are symbols for pancakes, for bacon, even for croissants. But what you won't find is what my mother has every day: you won't find an emoji for a bagel.

An outrage to be sure. If you want to communicate your morning repast to a friend via text, you have to settle for a doughnut emoji, and hope they mistake the sprinkles for poppy seeds. But some aren't sitting still. The New York Bakery Company (interestingly enough, based in Rotherham England) has started a petition asking Unicode to create a bagel emoji.  As they say, "Do you really need 4 different coloured notebooks? 16 variations of cyclist? A dragon? A horizontal traffic light? Despite consuming over 320 million each year, bagels are yet to make the digital leap." It's an outrage ripe for addressing.

As of this writing, Unicode's 2017 list has just been finalized, and includes updates such as a zombie, socks, as well as the much-requested person vomiting. But no bagel, poppy or otherwise. Is it too much to ask that one be included? You can lend your voice by signing the petition at  Already, the powers that be are starting to compile a list of possibles for generation 11, due out in 2018. So far, emojis representing a firecracker, a red envelope and a mooncake are in the running. So hop to it and sign the petition: don't leave your sesame version out in the cold.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a fresh bagel. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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