I'm writing this post because I'm an emoji dummy myself.
I only recently started using them on my iPhone, and after the initial excitement of sending dolphins and whales to my friends (not sharks -- there's a baffling dearth of shark emojis on the iPhone), I started to wonder what exactly some of these emojis were supposed to represent.
Although I haven't yet gotten to the bottom of the case of the missing shark, I did stumble upon something called Emojipedia, which breaks down what all the emojis were originally supposed to mean. (Of course, some people will use these emojis in ways that let them take on new meaning.)
Take a look at the intended translations of some of the most obscure -- and oddly specific -- emojis below. And if you don't see the one that perplexes you most, head over to Emojipedia and do some investigating of your own. (Note: They cover emojis for Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter. For this post, you'll see screenshots of Apple emojis, specifically.)
35 of the Most Obscure, Confusing, or Oddly Specific Emojis: Translated
Faces and Emotions
1) Grinning Face With Smiling Eyes
If you aren't seeing the grinning so much as the grimacing, you're not alone. According to Emojipedia: "The name of this emoji implies that it should appear similarly to the Grinning Face, but appears to have been mistakenly created by Apple as a variant of the Grimacing Face. Due to the popularity of the Apple emoji artwork, this is commonly used as a grimacing face, instead of its intended purpose as a grinning (smiling) face with smiling eyes."
2) Sleepy Face
If you're wondering why a sleepy person is crying, there's an explanation: It's actually a snot bubble. In Japanese anime, a snot bubble emanating from one nostril is used to indicate that a character is asleep -- just like the "Zzz" used in Western cartoons. In anime, the bubble inflates and deflates in sync with the character's breathing.
3) Face With Open Mouth and Cold Sweat
I never knew what the blue in this was supposed to denote, but now it makes sense -- a cold sweat! Clever.
4) "No Good" Gesture
This emoji is supposed to indicate "no" or "no good" according to Emojipedia.
5) "Okay" Gesture
This is intended to be a signal of "okay" -- the arms raised above the head in an "O" shape.
6) Women With Bunny Ears
This one always confused me. I wasn't sure if it was intended to be twins, dancers, or something else. I hadn't even noticed the bunny ears. Emojipedia lends some clarity:
"An iteration of the Playboy Bunny known in Japan as a Bunny Girl. Usually depicted as an attractive woman wearing bunny ears, a bunny girl can also be seen in anime as a hybrid human/animal known as Kemonomimi. Apple’s version shows two girls dancing, each wearing a leotard and bunny ears. On Android and Windows this emoji appears as a woman wearing bunny ears, consistent with the name."
7) Postal Horn
"A postal horn (usually called a post horn) was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to indicate that a mail coach was arriving to deliver the mail. When the horn was blown, people would have to get out of the way, sort of like a siren today."
8) European Post Office
Here's an emoji for a European post office. See the postal horn on the front? ... I told you some of these were oddly specific.
CD? DVD? Neither: Minidisc. If you don't remember the minidisc, you're not alone. "People briefly expected Minidisc to be the next big thing in music and audio. But along came MP3s and the iPod, and Minidisc became a distant memory," Emojipedia explains.
I always thought this was just some nondescript gift shop trinket. Now we know.
11) Lock With Ink Pen
If that name did little to clarify things for you (as it did me), here's Emojipedia's explanation: "A locked (closed) padlock, with an ink pen (otherwise known as a fountain pen) next to it. May [be] related to key signing, a term used in digital security."
Obscure mostly because of the object's own obscurity in 2014. Fun fact: The number displayed in the Apple pager emoji is different than the number displayed in Twitter's pager emoji.
13) Curry and Rice
Thought this was just supposed to be a generic dinner plate? Wrong! Curry and rice, folks. Curry and rice. Apologies in advance to those who will henceforth be getting this as a response to "What do you feel like eating?"
14) Meat on Bone
While the curry and rice emoji is incredibly specific, this meat on a bone is literally just meat on a bone. Fair enough.
Tangerines are not strange in and of themselves, but it's peculiar that the definition is definitively tangerine -- not orange -- considering such a similar outward appearance.
16) Rice Cracker
Nom. Love these things.
17) Roasted Sweet Potato
I was pretty sure this was a sweet potato when I saw it, but I was unaware of its status as roasted. More importantly, Emojipedia says this "Sweet potato emoji" is also known as the "Yam emoji" -- oh boy. LET THE DEBATES BEGIN.
18) Pine Decoration
My friends and I debated whether this was a cactus or bamboo. Turns out, it's not really either (it's definitely not cactus). It's a pine decoration called kadomatsu that's made of bamboo or pine.
19) Carp Streamer
What's a carp streamer? According to Emojipedia, " Carp-shaped wind socks [are] traditionally flown in Japan to celebrate Children's Day."
20) Wind Chime
Emojipedia says this is often referred to as a jellyfish emoji, so I think it warrants clarification that it's actually intended to be a wind chime.
21) Chicken (Not Rooster)
Emojipedia specifically warned not to mix up the Chicken emoji (top left) with the Rooster emoji (top right).
22) Ram (Not Sheep)
Can't remember the difference between a sheep and a ram? Me neither. The Ram emoji is on the top left -- the Sheep emoji is on the top right.
I've already forgotten.
23) Crocodile (Not Alligator)
A common source of confusion. There was also no alligator emoji I could find, so we'll just have to be content with crocs for now.
24) Water Buffalo vs. Ox
Two horned cow-looking things (is my city dweller showing?) are officially: A water buffalo (left) and an ox (right). You're welcome.
It may look like a caterpillar, but it's actually just a generic bug -- it appears as a centipede or millipede in other operating systems.
Astronomical & Meteorological
26) All of the Moons
There are emojis for every phase of the moon. If your high school was like mine and your astronomy teacher was also your gym teacher, you probably also do not know what these moon phases are called. File these away for the next time you want to impress your friends:
From left to right (top): Waning Crescent Moon, Last Quarter Moon, Waning Gibbous Moon, Full Moon
From left to right (bottom): Waxing Gibbous Moon, First Quarter Moon, Waxing Crescent Moon, New Moon
I always thought this was just a fun swirl like you saw in the intro to 1980s sitcoms; but in fact, it's supposed to represent a cyclone.
While some may think this emoji is intended to be a landscape of some sort due to the bridge in the background, it's really just meant to represent fog. Makes sense -- fog with no other point of contrast just looks like blurry gray.
Games & Sports
29) Alien Monster
Perhaps familiar to gamers, this pixelated cutie is, in Apple artwork, a Space Invader alien. In Google's artwork, he takes the form of a pink ghost with little orange antennae.
30) Flower Playing Card
For those not familiar with Japanese playing cards, this may just seem like another landscape. But according to Emojipedia, it's a hanafuda card, which are numberless cards used in Japan for various games that require images.
31) Mahjong Tile
I've heard of the popular game Mahjong, but have never seen a Mahjong tile. What we're looking at here is the Red Dragon Mahjong tile, specifically.
Some call this the "Refresh" emoji, but it's a symbol intended to communicate anticlockwise movement. Makes sense ... but I never would've thought to make a symbol for it.
33) Water Closet
WC = Water Closet. (Water Closet = Bathroom.)
This is one of those symbols that I wouldn't have identified as a trident on my own, but now that you say it, yeah, I see it.
35) Hot Springs
This is one of my favorite emojis. It's a result of Japan having plenty of hot springs due to its volcanic activity -- you'll find this symbol on many signs or maps in Japan as you're nearing a hot spring. Some may also use the emoji to simply denote steam or heat.
There you have it, folks. Now, go forth with your newfound knowledge and write some oddly specific emoji stories!
Originally published Oct 10, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated February 04 2021