The complete guide to using emoji on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad

The complete guide to using emoji on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad


So, you're curious about emoji... 🤔

What the heck is emoji anyway?

They’re just little symbols you can use in text in addition to your usual alphabet or pictographic characters. Things like 😃 and 👍 and ❤️.

So, like, smileys? ;-)

Yeah, a bit. Smileys like that are actually called emoticons. There are many more emoji, so they have a richer vocabulary. Plus, they’re prettier, and rather than taking up seven characters to write this ASCII rose @}-,-`- you can just use one, 🌹, which is kinda handy on Twitter.

But when I type :-D in some apps, it turns into 😃 anyway, so…?

True, some systems will convert old-fashioned emoticons such as :'( into little colorful icons instead. Sometimes they will literally be taking those few simple characters and replacing them with an emoji equivalent, sometimes they’ll swap them for a little bitmap character, and sometimes the underlying series of simple characters is left there but the app will show you a colorful icon instead when it displays the text. (I remember this happening with iChat; if I wrote “I’ll be there (probably around 8)” then what would get displayed was “I’ll be there (probably around 😎” since it would swap out the “8)” for “😎” on the fly!)

You’ve lost me.

Yeah, that got a bit technical, didn’t it? ☺️ Basically, emoji are just sweet little symbols you can use to add nuance, context and fun to text – or indeed to replace text altogether. Whee! 🎉

Okay, so how do I use them on my Mac?

Anywhere you can type text, press Control-Command-Space and a character palette will show up which allows you to browse and search—just start typing—through the emoji. Click one or highlight it with arrow keys and hit return. On older systems, you’ll have to use the Special Characters palette from the Edit menu (or Command-Option-T), and you might have to enable emoji by clicking the cog at the top left and customizing the list. You need at least OS X 10.7 to view and type emoji. 🦁

Anywhere I can type text, eh?

Well, nearly anywhere. You can use emoji in naming files and folders, though you’re entering a world of pain when you share them. And some apps, such as those in the Office 2011 suite, won’t support this character palette. But yeah, it will be at least technically possible in most places you can type text, smartypants. 😜

And on iOS?

Go to Settings > General > Keyboards > Keyboards and enable the Emoji keyboard. Now, wherever you can type text, tap the smiley at the bottom left of the keyboard to switch to emoji. (On older systems, tap the globe icon to toggle between keyboards; the emoji keyboard is just treated like it was any other language keyboard.) You can view emoji on iOS 4, but it wasn’t until iOS 5 that we got the option of typing them using an emoji keyboard outside of Japan.


Yeah, emoji are originally Japanese, and although they’re now being more widely adopted—indeed, since 2010, the global Unicode Consortium has worked to integrate a subset into the Unicode standard, and added many more since to make the system more international—to western eyes there’s still a slightly peculiar feel to the full emoji set. But hey, it’s quite nice that after years of imposing our culture on the world, we’re put in the position of finding ourselves a bit adrift in Japanese culture through the world of emoji!

Yeah, cute, but what on Earth does 🎏 mean, for example? Or 📛?

Well the first is koinobori, little streamers shaped like carp used to celebrate Children’s Day in Japan, and the latter is a tulip-shaped name badge used in kindergartens. In Japan.

emoji carp Skyseeker


Wait, what?

I know; if you’re not Japanese, you might have little call to use these particular ones—at least, to use them to designate their original meanings. But this is language, man, and language is gloriously malleable. So, the legend of the three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) is originally Japanese, and you have emoji for 🙈, 🙉 and 🙊, but I sometimes use 🙈 to signify a kind of forehead-slapping “D’oh!”, and 🙊 to signify a hand clapped to the mouth—“I can’t believe I said that!”

And people understand that, do they?

Maybe, maybe not. But it’s fun and playful, and even written language is susceptible to misinterpretation. Indeed, emoji can help add color and nuance to bare sentences which might help obviate this.

Okay, let me try: “You’re such a nerd! 🤓😘” How’d I do?

Not bad, and the kiss suggests you’re just being playful rather than actually insulting, which I hope is true, since apart from anything else “you” are an entirely fictional construct built by my own consciousness, and I would hope I’m not so self-hating as to actually insult myself in the middle of writing an innocuous guide to emoji for Macworld.

ios 9.1 emoji

The newest batch of emoji was added in iOS 9.1, including the long-awaited taco, unicorn, and Live Long and Prosper emoji.

However! The 🤓 emoji is a brand-new one, introduced first with iOS 9.1, and so not everyone will be able to see it; some people reading this won’t see it, even. Indeed, some people reading this won’t see any emoji in this piece at all, since their system will be too old to display them; they’ll see error characters instead.

That’s crazy. So if I use an emoji in a text message or on Twitter, there’s no guarantee people will see it?

It’s complicated. In general, most modern computers, smartphones and tablets will at least display _some_ emoji, though unless you’re as geeky about it as me and can identify the characters that have been around for a long time and are so likely to be more widely supported, no, there usually isn’t a guarantee that your emoji will be seen by other people. There are exceptions: Twitter and Facebook, for example, have systems in place so that emoji viewed through their official apps or on their websites _will_ display—using either the emoji native to the kind of device they’re being viewed on or by replacing them on the fly with their own versions of the emoji character.

Lost again. “Their own versions of the emoji character”?

Yes, even a simple winking face emoji will look different on each platform, and that’s because although the Unicode Consortium now controls the list of emoji, all that list really is is a text description of each one; it’s up to Google to decide how to actually draw up that description on Android and Chrome OS, up to Apple how to for OS X and iOS, and so on. (And in this context, “Facebook," for example, is a platform in its own right.)

android emoji Derek Walter

Android emoji are just weird-looking.

That seems fair enough. A winky face is a winky face is a winky face, right? 😉

Right. But sometimes the representation of an emoji veers in completely weird and unforeseeable directions. For example, our own Susie Ochs uses 💁 when chatting to suggest a saucy hair-flip, but technically that character is called “information desk person," and its equivalent on Android is [weird](, and looks nothing like a woman flicking her hair, which means the meaning can get totally lost.

One more wrinkle. With recent updates, some emoji support different versions to allow for a little welcome racial diversity. So, by default, 👦 shows up on modern Apple systems as a race-neutral golden yellow Lego-type person, but you can opt to switch it to 👦🏻, 👦🏼, 👦🏽, 👦🏾 or 👦🏿 by long-pressing on it. This is handled at a technical level by the computer actually typing 👦 plus a second character that defines the color, and on systems that support the skin color variants they just get understood as a single character—but on those that don’t, you might see the emoji for a man plus a little colored square.

emoji hands Gizmodo

Emoji got more diverse in iOS 8.3 and OS X 10.10.3.

This all seems more trouble that it’s worth; I give up! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Kudos on the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, by the way. And yeah, if you decide emoji are just too risky to use if you don’t know how or even if they’ll appear on other systems, fair enough. But they’re also sweet, playful and semantically useful, so they’re worth experimenting with. And ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ reminds me of one last tip: if you regularly use particular emoji especially on the Mac, selecting it with the character palette might slow you down a bit when you’re typing, so you can use the text expander system built into OS X to replace a sequence of characters of your choice—for example “//kiss”—with 😘, say. This is also how I can easily type ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (my trigger is “//shrug”) as well as ⌘, №, ½ and more. There’s a quick guide on my own blog. 🖖🏻

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