Communication, Emoji, Writing

Authority and Usage and Emoji

Maybe it’s a subconscious effect of my return to the blog, but I’ve found myself reading more essays recently, and so I found myself returning to the nonfiction work of David Foster Wallace.1 Despite the seeming topical randomness of his essays—John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, the tennis player Tracy Austin, a Maine lobster fest—there is a thematic consistency in DFW’s work, which revolves around the tension between authority and democracy, high culture intellectualism and overthinking and low culture entertainment and lack of self-reflection. That is, his essays are about America and Americans.2

Nowhere is this truer than in “Authority and American Usage,” his monumental review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.3 DFW uses this review of a single book to recount and assess the much longer debate between prescriptive language mavens who sternly offer correct English usage, and the more permissive, descriptive scholars who eschew hard usage rules for the lived experience of language. That is, authority and democracy.

The genius of Garner, in DFW’s view, is that he is an authority on American English who recognizes and even applauds regional and communal variations, without wagging his finger, but also without becoming all loosey-goosey and anything goes. Garner manages to have his cake and eat it too: he recognizes, with the democrats, that English (and language in general) is fluid and evolves and simply can’t be fixed in some calcified Edwardian form, but that it is also helpful to have rules and some knowledge of those rules so that you can express yourself with precision and persuade others. Even democratic descriptivists should want some regularity and authoritative usage because we all speak and write in a social context, and those we speak with and write to, whether we like it or not, pick up on subtle cues in usage to interpret and judge your intent and status within the community. Garner’s fusion of democracy and authority is immensely appealing to DFW; it’s like he’s figured out how to square the circle.

But Garner’s synthesis only works if the actual communication of your well-chosen words is true to what you had mentally decided to use, and here is where the seemingly odd inclusion of emoji in the title of this post comes into play.4 Emoji upset Garner’s delicate balance and upend DFW’s intense desire to communicate precisely because they are rendered very differently on digital platforms. Emoji entail losing control of the very important human capability to choose the exact form and meaning of our words. (The variation in emoji glyphs also contributes to the difficulty of archiving current human expression, but that is the subject of another post.) See, for example, the astonishing variety of the “astonished face” emoji across multiple platforms:


This is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, an artifact of the legal status of emoji, which, unlike regular old English words, apparently (or potentially) can be copyrighted in specific renderings. So lawsuit-averse giant tech companies have resorted to their own artistic execution of each emoji concept, and these renderings can have substantially different meanings, often rather distant from authorial intent. As legal and emoji scholar Eric Goldman summarizes, “Senders and recipients on different platforms are likely to see different implementations and decode the symbols differently in ways that lead to misunderstandings.” Think about someone selecting the fairly faithful second emoji from the left, above (from Apple), and texting it to someone who sees it rendered as the X-eyed middle glyph (from Facebook; Goldman, deadpan: “a depiction typically associated with death”), or the third from the left (from Google, who knows).

In short, emoji are a portent of a day when the old debate about authority vs. democracy in English usage is a quaint artifact of the twentieth century, because our digital communications have another layer of abstraction that makes it even more difficult to express ourselves clearly. There is no doubt that David Foster Wallace would dropped many foul-mouthed emoji at that possibility.

  1. Since this post is, in part, about the subtleties and importance of word choice, we might quibble here with the term “essays” for DFW’s nonfiction work. Although it is indeed the term stenciled on the cover of his nonfiction books, what is contained therein is more like a menagerie of what might be best, albeit simplistically, called writing, including steroidal book reviews, random journalistic junkets, and non-random literary slam-downs.
  2. Were DFW still with us and reading blogs, which is, let’s admit it, a laugh-out-loud impossibility, he would likely object to this simplification of his essays that in many cases present themselves more like thick description married with extended—Stretch-Armstrong-level extended—philosophical tangents. He would be doubly annoyed with my needling of this point in a footnote, which is a crass and transparent and frankly lame mimicry of DFW himself, although I hope he would have awarded consolation points for the mobius-strip referentiality here. And objectively, the style of DFW’s writing, both his fiction and nonfiction, combined snoot-grade polysyllabic dictionary-grabbers with unexpected but also well-timed f-bombs, and this fusion has always been something of a tell.
  3. The original title of DFW’s Garner review was “Tense Present: Democracy, English and Wars over Usage,” which is, let’s face it, more clever.
  4. N.B. I use emoji as both the singular and plural form, à la sushi, although this is debated and is a perfect case study in authoritarian vs. democratic English usage. Robinson Meyer talks to the prescriptive language experts and Googles the democratic use of emoji vs. emojis in a remarkably DFW-esque piece in The Atlantic.