For the last few years, I've been a coauthor of "Among the New Words," a quarterly article in the journal American Speech. While researching the upside-down smiley face 🙃 for the latest installment, I came across the combination 🙃🔫 .
Having never noticed this combo before, I became curious about what other gun + face emoji pairings were popular, and I took my initial observation to Twitter. Jeremy Burge of Emojipedia mentioned that he saw 😶🔫 (gun + face with no mouth) a lot. Was this a top gun + face emoji pairing?
The short answer is no. The long answer is more involved.
First allow me to acknowledge that I know that the "official" unicode name of 🔫 is "pistol." I understand this, and yet, I have never used the word "pistol" to describe this emoji. To me and to so many people, this is the gun emoji. And so, I'll be calling this the gun emoji throughout this post.
I've been slowly teaching myself Python over the last few years, and had downloaded August 2016 tweets from Internet Archive's Twitter grabs with the intention of using them for some sort of project in the future. Now, there are some limitations to using this data to study emoji. First of all, the Unicode Consortium releases new emoji every year, and as new emoji emerge, emoji use necessarily changes. For example, as of June 2017, I'm very fond of the upside-down smiley face 🙃 and the face with no mouth emoji 😶. However, these were only introduced in 2015, so if I were to look at Twitter data from before then, they would obviously not show up in the results. Also, as new emoji are introduced, they take various periods of time to catch on in the mainstream, if they do catch on in any significant way.
Another limitation is that this is Twitter data, and so we can only for certain say that this is an exploration of how Twitter users, in this specific time period, used this emoji. While we can extrapolate this to make assumptions about emoji use at large, those assumptions are not made without reservations.
I also wanted to mention that the gun emoji appears differently on different platforms. On Twitter, where the data from this project comes from, the gun emoji looks like an actual pistol, albeit in adorable emoji form. On any Apple product, the gun emoji appears as a neon green water gun. Could this impact how people feel about the gun emoji, and ultimately how they use it? Of course.
Why is the Gun Emoji Interesting to Study?
The gun emoji is of particular interest to me because it's directional. By this I mean that whether an emoji comes before or after the gun emoji impacts the meaning. To put it simply, order very much matters when we're talking about who is being shot and who is pulling the trigger. The position before, or to the left of the gun emoji, is the thing that is being shot (or the thing that is coming out of the gun, in some cases, which I'll get to below). The position after, or to the right of the gun emoji, represents the trigger end, and usually (though not always) represents the shooter.
This directional quality does not exist for most other emoji like faces, foods, buildings, etc. Exceptions include, and are not limited to any arrow emoji ↘️, the person running emoji 🏃, various vehicle emoji 🚗, and the eyes emoji 👀 (though the direction they look varies from platform to platform).
Anyway, with guns—in the real world and in the emoji world—direction matters.
What Comes Before 🔫 and What Comes After 🔫?
For the scope of this project, I looked at tweets from August 2016. Some stats:
Total tweets in my data set: 100,606,075
Total hits for emoji in position before gun emoji: 23,228
Total hits for emoji in position after gun emoji: 12,245
Here you can already see that if the gun emoji is going to take only one emoji complement, it is more likely to take that in the before position. That is, there are more things being shot than pulling the trigger in this data set. This makes sense because in many cases, the shooter can be implied as the person who made the tweet. Additionally, in many cases, the shooter is also the person being shot, when we're talking about emoji representing people like 😶🔫 or 🙃🔫.
Below are the top five emoji that appear before the gun emoji. The percentages are calculated as a fraction of the total matches before/after the gun emoji. The PPMs (count per million) are calculated as a fraction of the total number of tweets searched.
Here are the top five emoji that appear after the gun emoji:
Note that the gun emoji only appears on this second list and that it appears on this list a lot. This is because in our analysis we only recorded the first instance of the gun emoji, checked the positions before and after that instance of the gun, and then moved on to the next tweet. The gun in this very high instance in the after position means that if we had looked at multiple appearances of the gun in the same tweet, we would have seen the pattern 🔫🔫, 🔫🔫🔫 , 🔫🔫🔫🔫, etc. emerge. Because it's already widely known that people repeat the same emoji as a means to express emphasis, I was not interested in exploring strings of multiple guns for this particular project. You'll see in the charts below I've excluded the gun emoji for that reason.
So, what does this mean?
What Does the Gun Emoji Shoot At?
As far as I can see, there are three main categories of things that appear in the position before the gun emoji:
- Faces 😂 😭 😊 🙃 💀
Perhaps surprisingly, only one of the faces in the top five, the second one 😭, represents pure, unadulterated despair to me. The others take on a more overtly sarcastic tone when paired with the gun emoji. That said, I have seen 😭 used sarcastically, though it's hard to get this reading out of context.
Perhaps all these faces stand in for the person typing, which adds to the layers of sarcasm. These emoji combinations, in many cases, might be interpreted as the reflexive and sardonic statement "Just shoot me."
I see 😍 a little lower down on the list, which I take to mean some kind of heartbreak. It could also, along with 💀, be related to the "Kill me now/I am dying/RIP me" euphemistic expressions popular among teens when faced with the attention or achievements of their favorite celebrities. If you're not familiar with this usage, Graham Norton and Taylor Swift discussed it in 2014.
- Booms 💥 💯 🔥 💕 💔 💦
I called this category booms, and I interpret this as explosions that come out of a gun. Some of them are more realistic, like 💥 or 🔥 (or 💦 if someone is used to seeing a water gun on Apple devices), while the hearts are a little less straight forward. Again, this could be some kind of heartbreak. Maybe the two hearts bursting from the gun are a type of love bullet (think cupid's arrows).
The broken heart could also be interpreted more like the faces in that it's something that could be shot at, and as a result, has burst apart.
- Other Weapons and Death Imagery 🔪 💣 💀
This category accounts for a scenario when order doesn't actually seem to matter with the gun emoji. In these examples, the tweeter is often typing a string of weapons to express violence or frustration in a more general sense. There is often no object or target of the violence expressed in this emoji string, though perhaps that context appears elsewhere in the tweet. I also put 💀 in this category because I don't know exactly how to categorize it, so it gets to live in two categories.
Who Pulls the Trigger?
The same three categories are present in the position after the gun emoji, plus a very specific one-emoji category:
- Faces 😂 😎 😩 😈
These faces also have a clear divide. Delirious, chill, distraught, and sinister. 😎 particularly stands out to me. In this example, it's an IDGAF kind of face that pulls the trigger.
- Booms 💥 🔥 💕 💔
This is very similar to the before position booms. It's all about the explosion, from the more literal fiery kind to heartbreaking variety.
- Other Weapons and Death Imagery 🔪 💣 👊 ⚰️ ☠️
Again order doesn't really matter with these ones. Just the general impression of violence, death, danger, anger, etc.
- The Rose 🌹
This is mostly (if not exclusively) used to refer to the band Guns N' Roses.
It's vital to keep in mind that the face with tears of joy emoji 😂 has been found to be, overall, one of the most popular emoji, so it's no surprise that it shows up in the top five for both the before and after lists of gun pairings.
What Can We Learn From All This?
My biggest takeaway is that there are a few distinct ways that people are using the gun emoji: faces, explosions, and strings of weapons/death imagery being the top categories.
It seems that the sarcastic and reflexive gun emoji pairings are extremely popular, which matches my expectations and the knowledge I brought into this exercise. One result that surprised me was the high collocation with the gun and various heart emoji. I had never personally thought of the gun emoji as a means to express heartbreak, but it's there in the data.
My friend Kim suggested that a few of the gun emoji pairings might be an example of lexical aspect, or the logical end-state of something in its emoji representation. I love this idea and I think there's something to it. This includes 💔 💀 ☠️ ⚰️, and could be another way to break down the categories (especially considering I had trouble knowing exactly where to place the broken heart and the skull). I suppose technically a broken heart can mend, but for the purposes of this analysis, let's just say that broken is the final state of a once non-broken heart.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are some fascinating differences in what emoji fall before and after the gun emoji, in the victim and the shooter positions, respectively. The sunglasses emoji 😎 struck me as particularly cold when placed on the trigger end of a gun.
As I mentioned above, I worked on this project to help me improve my Python skills. If you're interested in the code I used to loop through the tweets and pull out this data, you can check it out at my GitHub repository. A very special thanks to Jeremy Smith who walked me through how to create code to explore this question of gun emoji pairings. We're both new to analyzing tweets, so if you see any places where we could improve our code, let me know.