Lost in illustration
Emoji are practically a universal part of language now, with chat conversations liberally sprinkled with little pictograms. But just because they’re widely adopted doesn’t mean they’re fully understood: We’ve all cringed at older people’s use of 🤣 after texting about the death of a beloved pet, thinking it was a weeping face.
Another example is 🙏, which is commonly interpreted as a high-five in many Western countries. But in India, it’s seen for what it’s actually meant to be: prayer hands. (And in Indonesia, it’s a sign of gratitude.)
Of course, hand gestures taking on different meanings in different places is an old tale of cultural crossed wires. But when it comes to emoji, they’ve entered a whole new world of meaning. Here are some of our favorite emoji that don’t quite mean what you might think.
The open palm tends to be a peaceful gesture. But in Pakistan, sending 🖐 means you’re actually hurling curses (laanat) at the reader.
Similarly, in Mexico, ✊ — often taken to mean “solidarity” or “resistance” elsewhere — is actually closer to giving someone the middle finger in the U.S. (Technically, it bids the receiver to do something unconscionable to their own mother.)
More generally, across Latin America, 🤘 isn’t just for metalheads. In this context, it is an indication of adultery.
Beyond commonly accepted hand gestures, China can prove to be a difficult place to send seemingly innocent emoji: 🙂 denotes deep exasperation, while the innocent-looking 👼 could be taken as a menacing harbinger of death.
Argentina’s penchant for hand gestures and old political legacies have found new life in emoji, where ✌️ might not mean what you think. Winston Churchill often made the V sign for victory, and it was adopted by his contemporary, the Argentine political stalwart, Juan Perón.
But his lasting legacy means that the symbol is still closely linked with Peronism, even decades later. To use a ✌️ in a polarized country like Argentina is to associate yourself with a particular side of the ideological divide.
This concept shouldn’t be too foreign to those living in the United States, which saw 👌 go from an innocuous form of agreement to a not-so-secret symbol for the far-right.
As the home and originator of the emoji, Japan provided the bulk of the pictograms that we see and use today. When removed from the cultural context of Japan, some of those can be understandably hard to parse.
For instance, there’s 🏩. You might think a building with a heart and an H on it is a hospital. You might think that it’s a nice way to tell someone to get well soon. But you’d be wrong, because it’s a love hotel.
Many emoji can mean the polar opposite of what they represent in the West. 💸 actually carries a negative connotation, signifying the loss of money. And the infamous 💩 is actually a symbol of good luck.
Similarly, the 💁 has come to be adopted globally as the international symbol for sassiness, but was originally simply meant to be an attendant at an information desk.
We wouldn’t be a self-respecting tech website if we didn’t mention the shared language between people who are not geographically bound but rather tethered by their ideals.
Rest of World’s very own Nilesh Christopher notes that “every startup founder and their mother” uses 🚀 when announcing feature updates, or funding, or just offering general startup solidarity.
El Salvador’s adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender has come wrapped in a good bit of greenwashing. Chief among these is 🌋, symbolizing the sustainable geothermal energy allegedly being used to keep the crypto economy afloat.
💎👐 has similarly become a point of pride for r/wallstreetbets and, subsequently, crypto maximalists, who will hold to their assets as a matter of principle, no matter the current price.
It’s not just the meaning of emoji that can change. The emoji itself can change, too.
A couple of years ago, not much thought went into the syringe emoji, which featured a needle filled, and dripping, with blood. Yet, in the pandemic-filled months since, the emoji was transformed into 💉 — swapping blood for a clear liquid. That allowed users to adopt it as the increasingly popular symbol for vaccine, according to Deputy Emoji Officer at Emojipedia, Keith Broni.
And anyone who’s used 🔫 in the early days might have noticed that the gun emoji had a makeover. Once a weapon, now it’s a toy, transforming from a realistic depiction of a handgun to a water pistol.