Like the original Godzilla films, emojis were created for a Japanese audience. And also like the Godzilla films, Americans don't really have the cultural context to understand what half of them really mean, but love them all the same.
But because we use these graphics on a daily basis and still have no idea what the hell that weird one with the faucet crossed out is, we spoke to Jeremy Burge from Emojipedia, who's done a ton of research on the origins and meanings of all the strange and useful icons on your phone right now.
Crying cat face
What it looks like: A cat crying like a person. But cats can't cry like people! Oh, wait.
The meaning behind the emoji: Burge says that the crying cat "is quite popular in Japan" for two reasons. One, cats themselves are super popular in Japan, and two, it's taken much less seriously than the human crying emoji, which is often used to represent actual sadness.
Person bowing deeply
What it looks like: Burge says the English-speaking world commonly thinks this is a kid trying to be cute, like if they put their hands under the chin and smile.
The meaning behind the emoji: The bow is a sign of respect in Asia. Fun fact: Burge says the Windows version of the emoji shows a different type of bowing used in China (as opposed to the Japanese iOS version).
Pile of poo
What it looks like: An anthropomorphic pile of dung that's super happy to exist
The meaning behind the emoji: Burge doesn't quite know why the poo is smiling, but he does note that the eyes and mouth make it more cute than simply sending an actual pile of poo. Which is what happens when you send that emoji via Android or Windows. Then the emoji is just a serious bummer.
Fish cake with swirl design
What it looks like: A snowflake with latte art in the middle
The meaning behind the emoji: Like a garnish you might find on your salad in a fancy restaurant, the fish cake with the swirl design is often used as a decorative, edible bit of food in Japanese dishes such as ramen.
What it looks like: A chocolate chip cookie with all the chocolate chips clumped together in one spot
The meaning behind the emoji: Rice crackers are a common Japanese snack. This particular variety has seaweed at the base of it.
What it looks like: An oval-shaped moldy orange
The meaning behind the emoji: In America, if you see a barbershop pole outside of a building, you know it's one of two things: 1) a barbershop, or 2) a speakeasy that used to be a barbershop with a hidden entrance and $17 cocktails. In Japan, if you see this particular type of lantern, you know you'll find a casual spot to enjoy drinks and small plates.
Flower playing cards
What it looks like: The moon slowly crashing into the Earth under a blood red sky
The meaning behind the emoji: The card pictured here is a type of Hanafuda card that can be used to play a number of games, just like a standard 52-deck of cards in America can be used to play blackjack, poker, or other illicit amusements in your friend's illegal basement casino. Burge admits, "I have no idea what it means when you play that [particular] card."
Mahjong tile red dragon
What it looks like: Something pirates text one another with the intent to intimidate!
The meaning behind the emoji: Anyone who plays mahjong -- a game similar to Western rummy that originated in China -- definitely knows this tile, but since you're probably not 110-years-old (seemingly the average age of a mahjong player in the US), all you need to know is that it's a mahjong tile associated with the red dragon.
What it looks like: Burger King corporate headquarters
The meaning behind the emoji: Although there doesn't seem to be any precedent for BK being an abbreviation for "bank," that's what the emoji designers decided. Burge says he knows people use it to refer to Burger King, which must be a huge coup for the Whopper-makers.
Japanese post office
What it looks like: The building where Tetris was created
The meaning behind the emoji: It might look like two Tetris pieces stamped on a building, but Burge assures us the icon is recognizable to the Japanese as a place where letters are sent and received. And honestly, this Japanese post office icon is probably more useful for an American audience than a USPS emoji would be! You know, because the USPS is awful? Like, they lose mail and stuff?? No?
What it looks like: The dying sun, right before it crashes into Earth and destroys mankind
The meaning behind the emoji: You might recognize this from the button on your MacBook that lowers the screen brightness, because it's the same symbol! Burge says that certain emojis, like this one, aren't really meant for communication purposes because they are derived from 10+ year old phones. It might've simply been used as an "interface element" to tell you which button to hit when you wanted to lower the brightness on your flip phone. Essentially this is the emoji version of a man's nipple -- a completely useless feature that for some reason is still around.
What it looks like: The universal symbol for California
The meaning behind the emoji: Burge undersells it when he says this "doesn't seem apt as a text communication." He adds that this is one of many symbols out in the physical world that were transposed into emoji form.
What it looks like: What a flower looks like to someone who is tripping balls
The meaning behind the emoji: The key to this is the Japanese text hidden inside the flower. It translates to mean "You did very well" in English, and is a stamp customarily used to praise the work of a student in elementary school. So go ahead, embody a Japanese teacher and bestow this honor upon your friends.
What it looks like: A person is either smiling or in deep pain
The meaning behind the emoji: Some people use this grimace face to mean "oops!" but if you're an Android user, the same emoji just looks mad angry. To add to the confusion, there's also the oxymoronic Grinning Face with Smiling Eyes, which is straight up smiling on Android. Basically, don't send this emoji out unless you're sure what phone the receiver uses, or else emotions might be mixed up.
What it looks like: What should be the international symbol for a heart transplant
The meaning behind the emoji: In Japan, some of the earlier emojis were animated. Burge has a theory that this might have been one of them, and that the hearts at one time rotated. But it's not animated, and he has no conclusive idea what the heck it represents. He says that many people "come up with their own code" for what all the heart icons mean. Personally I still like the transplant idea.
What it looks like: A guy in a fur-trapper hat with weird facial hair
The meaning behind the emoji: Although the iOS emoji looks like a Brooklyn bro trying really hard to make a statement, the Android equivalent makes it clear it's a British guardsman. Burge says that most of the emojis were obviously made specifically for the Japanese market (duh), but that the US and the UK were tossed a bone or two with emojis just for them!
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