A Closer Look At Emoticons and Acronyms

As a self-appointed queen of Gchat and all sorts of online communications that require typing rather than verbalizing, I have encountered and continued to be bewildered by the use of emoticons and internet acronyms across culture. We all are familiar with a universal smiley face :-) a wink ;) or a LOL (Laughing Out Loud), but what I find more interesting is who uses which emoticons and acronyms.

Before we begin please note that this post is not a scientific research and my observation is based on my personal online text-based conversations that I have with people from different parts of the world. On top of that, the vocabulary of emoticons and acronyms is ever changing. By continuing to read this post, you have agreed to accept this parameter. Now let’s enter the wonder world of fluffy emoticons and crazy acronyms!


In America, the use of abbreviate terms is very common. People regularly include a LOL (Laughing Out Loud), an OMG (Oh My God), a TMI (Too Much Information), or a DL (Down Low – which admittedly I thought it stood for ‘Dinner List’ when I first heard it). Meanwhile, they tend to keep emoticon use at minimum. Once you add a face, it creates some impact. For instance, when including a wink ;) at the end of a sentence, to American readers it feels more like a wink rather than just a subtle wink. So choose when to use them wisely in order to avoid unnecessary complications. ;)

An interesting practice in the UK and Australia that is fairly uncommon in the United States is to end a message with an ‘x’ or ‘X’. For example, “Thanks for stopping by the other day. x” or “Catch ya later! X” This playful mark is a rarity in the United States. Thanks to Gossip Girl’s influence, “xo” comes across slightly feminine to American eyes. I can’t imagine ever receiving an ‘xo’ from a platonic American guy friend while that seems to be the norm among people of the Commonwealth.

While Brits and Aussies are showering their playful sentiment with x’s & X’s, many Americans like to SHOUT LOUDLY. All caps is used MORE FREQUENTLY than what non-US users may prefer. But honestly, are we surprised? It might not be a bad idea for Americans to bear in mind that when capitalizing their texts, they may come across MORE INTENSE THAN THEY ANTICIPATED, and readers may feel SLIGHTLY OVERWHELMED.

Moving along to the East and we get an even more interesting collection of acronyms, wordplays, and emoticons, thanks to Asian cutesy pop culture and the influential Japanese manga. Many Asian online users like to incorporate numbers into their texts. For instance, 5 (five) in Thai reads “Ha”. So when you want to write “hahaha”, Thai people save those extra two seconds by shortening it with a “555”. Similarly, to say “bye bye” in Chinese, Mandarin users type “88” – an 8 (eight) is pronounced “Ba” which sounds close enough to a ‘bye”.

Personally I find Chinese acronyms and wordplays particularly fascinating. Since Chinese writing system is comprised of characters and not letters, words that have the same sound are made up of different characters and carry different meanings, hence an endless pun galore. For instance “??” (fen4 qing1 | ? = anger, indignant; ? = youth ) is a slang for angry youth, referring to young Chinese who are intensely patriotic. The exact same pronunciation, written as ?? (fen4 qing1), however, means shitty youth, because ? (fen4) means poo. Another PG-13 example is ?? (guo2 zu4) and ?? (guo2 zhu1). People use the first term when referring to the Chinese national soccer team (?? – guo2 zu4 | ? = country, in this case China; ? = foot, in this case football), but when they don’t perform, these soccer players will then be equate with the latter, aka national pigs (?? – guo2 zhu1 | ? = country; ? = pig).

For more awesome puns (including R-rated ones), please refer to ChinaSmack’s internet slang glossary.

Because internet censorship applies in China, another unique online practice is to shorten sensitive words into codes. For example, JC stands for “??” “Jing3 Cha2” or police. Looks like I’d better switch to another country right here…

While Western emoticons face sideways with eyes to the left and mouths to the right, Asian emoticons are read from top to bottom (eyes on top, mouth at the bottom). It may take a couple seconds to ‘see’ Asian emoticons if you are not familiar with them. The basic online facial features of a Japanese/Asian emoticons are:

The face (optional) – Ex. (   ) or [   ] or {     }

The eyes – Ex. ^^ or > < or ‘ ‘

The mouth – Ex. ____ or O or – or .

Now let’s combine them all using the bracket-eye-mouth-eye-bracket format and we’ll get:

Happy face: (^ O ^)   {^______^}

Sad face: (T__T) (The T’s look like crying eyes.)

Confused face: (O_o)   (O__O)

Disapproved/nervous face: [-_-“] (The apostrophe represents two beads of sweat.)

Can you see it? If you can’t, go read some Japanese manga.


More Than Words or Empty Words

In theory, emoticons add sentiments that readers cannot extract from boring Times New Roman-font texts. However, I’m sure you’ve come across email writers who are so emoticon-frenzy that you feel like you have to wade through their smiley and sappy faces to find words, which makes you begin to wonder if these cartoon faces are necessary at all. Do emoticons encourage people to be lazier with words, having to rely on emoticons to help finish the sentence? How will text originators know that text receivers understand the message accurately? Your impression of a :) may read like a -_-” to me.

Bridging the Gap

Some people (including myself) use more emoticons when communicating in a foreign language. With limited vocabulary and limited grammatical structures to leverage, we feel a little restricted when trying to get our message across, hence the desperate smiley face :) that represents EVERYTHINGTHATYOUDON’TKNOWHOWTOSAY.

Emoticons, acronyms, and internet slang – whether you love them or hate them – exist. So you might as well get friendly and familiar with them. Just make sure you cater THE RIGHT ONES TO THE RIGHT CROWD. Have fun with it. (^__^) Why not! xx Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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