Gun Emoji Pairings (Part 2)

💥 🔫  If you haven't yet read Part 1 of my research on gun emoji pairings, you'll probably want to read that first for some context.💥 🔫

There's a lot to unpack when discussing the gun emoji. In Part 1 of this series, I looked at the raw counts of hits for various emoji that come before and after the gun emoji. Though that's fascinating in its own right, I knew that ultimately I wanted to filter out the most common emoji and calculate the pairings using normalized relative frequencies to further chip away at the question of what comes before and after the gun emoji. 

I also touched on three reasons why the gun emoji is so interesting to study: it's directional, it looks different across platforms, and its meaning is culturally "loaded." In this post I want to focus on the last of these reasons because it's such a complex issue.

If you'd prefer to watch a video of me discussing the contents of both Part 1 and Part 2 of this topic, you're in luck. In September I gave a keynote at an electronic lexicography conference in the Netherlands called eLex, and I talk about emoji starting at about the 36 minute mark.

Is it a Crime to Use Emoji In Certain Ways?


I hesitated to put this image in the slides of my keynote.

As I was writing my talk, I thought this would be a great visual to illustrate the cultural weight that gun imagery holds, but as soon as I put these two emoji together, I had a visceral reaction to their pairing. It just felt violent in a way that 🙃🔫 didn't. Partially it's that I'm usually on Apple devices, so I generally see a green squirt gun in place of a more realistic-looking pistol. Partially it's that I hadn't really seen this particular pairing before. 

But I felt it was important to include this image because a teenager went to court over this very gun emoji pairing. Here's an excerpt from an Mashable article detailing this 2015 case:

The 17-year-old had posted Facebook statuses with a gun emoji pointed at an emoji of a police officer, and the NYPD initially charged him with making terroristic threats. The teenager's lawyer called the charge irrational, and the debate hinged on whether the kid had made a "true threat" or was perhaps just angrily tapping out some little pictures.

Here we have people debating in court whether a teen pairing these two emoji is a "terroristic threat" or a kid "just angrily tapping out some little pictures." A teenager's future was on the line. Ultimately the charge of terrorism was dropped, but this raises a lot of questions about how emoji might be interpreted in legal situations as they become more and more ubiquitous.

This case is not an isolated incident. In February 2016 Washington Post ran a story with the headline: "A 12-year-old girl is facing criminal charges for using certain emoji. She’s not alone." In September 2016 Chicago Tribune reported that emoji threats against a police officer from a local man led to that man's probation.

If interpreting the meaning of emoji can play a role in the course of person's life, whether they're in danger of violence or they're convicted of a crime, then understanding emoji is quite literally vital. 

Normalized Relative Frequencies for Gun Emoji Pairings

While the raw count from my first analysis is interesting, I wanted to strip out the more commonly used emoji to see which ones are more likely to appear alongside the gun emoji than to appear in the overall text in any context.

I looked at over 100,000,000 tweets from August 2016 in my original analysis, and I used that same dataset in this post. See Part 1 for more details.

One thing I noticed in my original results is that 😂 showed up in the top five positions on both the before and after gun emoji lists. I expected this because 😂 has been reported to be the most popular emoji by many different studies. Of course, I wanted to see for myself, so I calculated total emoji counts in my own dataset and this completely agreed with these earlier findings. In fact, 😂 was so popular in this dataset that it was nearly three times more common than the second most common emoji, ❤️.


I used a method often employed in corpus linguistics (detailed here) to understand what less common emoji are more likely to appear in the context of the gun emoji than in other contexts. This method generally filters out the more common emoji. The idea here is that these emoji are more likely to be used in all contexts, so their use in proximity to the gun emoji is less significant. If a very common emoji happens to be used at much higher rates than it's normally used when paired with the gun emoji, then it will still appear in the normalized relative frequencies.

Below are my results. The number on the x-axis is the ratio of the relative frequency of each emoji appearing next to the gun emoji to the relative frequency of that emoji appearing in all contexts. There's a smoothing parameter of 100.


Emoji More Likely to Appear Before the Gun Emoji Than in All Contexts

There are four categories that stand out to me in the top 10 emoji that come before the gun emoji:

  1. Weapons and Death Imagery 🔪 💣 ☠️ 🗡️ 🔨
    This category showed up in the raw count as well. Its presence here shows that when someone uses the gun emoji, they are more likely to be using other weapon emoji next to the gun emoji. As I mentioned in Part 1, order doesn't matter so much here. Often people will type out a bunch of weapons at random to express violence or frustration.

    Additionally, the run-ins with the law discussed above mean that a string of weapons directed toward another person could be taken as a real threat of violence in some cases.
  2. People ☠️ 👮 🙃
    Again, as in Part 1, I didn't know if I should count skull-related emoji as people or death imagery, so I counted them in both categories. My assumption is that a skull was once a person, and this is the logical end state of a face emoji. Perhaps, as I mentioned in Part 1, this is an example of lexical aspect, giving the gun emoji a temporal dimension.

    The police officer was really interesting to me here because that emoji didn't show up at all in my first analysis with raw frequency. 

    The upside-down smiley face just made the top 10 of the normalized relative frequencies. This is in the top five of the raw frequencies, and its inclusion in the top of both parts of this analysis confirms my casual observation that this emoji seemed to pop up a lot before the gun emoji. 
  3. Booms 💥 🚬
    This makes a lot of sense to me. Having an explosion come out of the gun emoji follows real-world logic. The cigarette emoji (not shown in the chart above because I cut that off at 10) showed up in the top 15 emoji that appear before the gun emoji. I read this as the expression "smoking gun," which reminded me of the "Guns N' Roses" pairing from Part 1. It works as both the phrase, but also as the physical object that comes out of a gun.
  4. Wildcards 🃏 🐓
    I don't know exactly what to make of these. There's the joker, which feels creepy to me, but I'm not sure why. The rooster could also live in the people category. Maybe this is a person being called a chicken. Maybe it's an emoji representation of the verbal phrase: "to cock a gun." I would have to look more closely at individual examples to truly understand how these two are being used, but that's a project for a different post.

Emoji More Likely to Appear After the Gun Emoji Than in All Contexts

As in my first analysis, there is some overlap in these categories for the top emoji in the before and after gun emoji position:

  1. Weapons and Death Imagery 🔪 💣 🗡️ ⚰️ ⛓️ 🔨 ☠️
    No surprises here. As I established before, order doesn't matter.
  2. People 💂‍♂️ ☠️ 👮 
    Here we have a guardsman, specifically a British guardsman. My first thought is that guns are a lot less common in the UK than in the US, so why would this pop up. However, I've found that this is used more generally to represent a soldier. The term 'street solider' is used in reference to gang members, and this emoji, when paired with the gun emoji, seems to be almost exclusively used in that context.  

    Again we have the police officer. The police officer appears in this analysis in the top 10 both as the person being shot 👮🔫 and as the shooter 🔫👮. I already discussed the first pairing above, but the second is just as potent because it evokes Black Lives Matter. 
  3. Wildcards
    At first I had no clue why the fuel pump appeared after the gun emoji so often. I would understand this more if it came before the gun because if you shoot a fuel pump, then there's a huge explosion: 🔥⛽🔥💥🔫. However, I thought this could also be more like the string of weapons in no particular order.

    Then Jez Smith, who's collaborated with me on the more technical parts of this project, got curious and did some research. And he found an answer!

    It turns out an earlier design of the fuel pump on some platforms included a giant "G" on the front of the pump to stand for the word "gas," (a very US-centric design as this is not called "gas" globally). This prominent letter placement inspired some people to start using this emoji to spell out words. Well, at least it inspired people to spell out one word: "gang." Even though the "G" has been removed from most of the fuel pump emoji designs, this use is still alive and well. Just do a search for "⛽🅰️🆖" or "⛽ang" to see some examples.

    With this knowledge, it's pretty obvious why the fuel pump emoji might appear after the gun emoji.

More Thoughts On Directionality

Even though my original interpretation of the fuel pump emoji was completely wrong, the visual logic of these two isolated emoji in this order made me think very carefully about the direction the gun emoji points.


I came to the conclusion that the way the gun emoji faces is at odds with languages that read from left to right.

My personal inclination when using 🔫 would be to start on the left with the shooter (if any), move on to the gun, and then finally show the thing being shot to the right of the gun emoji. This way, each emoji in the string is arranged chronologically. After all, when a gun is fired the action begins with the trigger and ends with the bullet coming out of the barrel. Each subsequent emoji builds upon the previous emoji in the sequence. 

However, when I actually use this order, the gun is backward:

I only got three hours of sleep! 🔫🙃

If you're writing or reading English (or other langauges that read from left to right), the direction the gun emoji faces forces you to rearrange the logical order of events. The emoji in my example above must be swapped for the story to make sense:

I only got three hours of sleep! 🙃🔫

Because the gun emoji reads from right to left and English reads from left to right, you have to process the entire emoji sequence before you can understand who's doing the shooting and who's being shot. 

There's been talk in the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee about allowing users to mirror existing emoji. If emoji mirroring becomes a reality, my hypothesis is that the gun emoji would be more likely to be mirrored for languages that read from left to right than for languages that read from right to left. 


If you're interested, you can check out this project on GitHub.

Special thanks to Jez Smith and Hugo, who helped me make my code much better and faster than it would be if I wrote it alone. I was just looking at Hugo's GitHub, and he has a repository called Its description: "50,000 Meows: Replace all words with meows, preserving punctuation." So check that out too if you're excited about the possibility of replacing words with meows.