Researching the Use of Emojis in the Legal Profession

Emojis are everywhere. They have become so popular that in 2015 the Oxford Dictionary chose 😂as the word of the year. Their conspicuous usage has already become present in our legal systems. ☺in Canada, 🔫in France, 👍in Spain, 💃🏻👯‍✌️☄️🐿️in Israel, ✈️in New Zealand or 🤐in Australia are just of the few noteworthy examples of the new frontiers of cases involving emojis. Professor Eric Goldman at the Santa Clara University School of Law has aimed to compile a list of cases in the United States where emojis as well as emoticons[1] have been used in courts. In Canada, Laurence Bich-Carrière has also attempted to compile a comprehensive analysis focusing on emoji and judicial interpretation.

If the public usage and visibility of emojis in cases continue to grow, where do we go in order to do research and to look for previous uses and potential meanings?

🆓📚: Free Sources

Since its inception in 2013, Emojipedia has been the most comprehensive and authoritative free source to define emojis. Because of being a member of the Unicode Consortium, Emojipedia has a wealth of readily available information when it comes to new emojis approved, the styles of emojis in different platforms and the historical iterations of emojis. For example, if you look for “birthday cake”, we get 🎂. Emojipedia also informs us that “🎂was approved as part of Unicode 6.0 in 2010 and added to Emoji 1.0 in 2015.” The same page also shows us the different emojis for “birthday cake” in platforms such as Samsung, WhatApp, Twitter or Facebook and furthermore, you also have access to the previous iterations of the emoji in the same platform.

Two years ago in 2018, made the move to create a section dedicated to emojis: the Emoji Dictionary. Lexicographer Jane Solomon, who also collaborates with the Unicode Consortium, explained the importance of including these depictions within more traditional dictionaries and its inevitability given the predominant usage among younger generations. The editorial and expertise of lexicographers such as Solomon working at help explain two particularly interesting features in their Emoji Dictionary. First, it includes examples of people using the particular emoji you are looking for in either various social media platforms or in any other publications. further explains the different uses and meaning an emoji might have depending on the context or even the platform. For example, the “cake emoji” comes with the following explanation:


The emoji cake is widely used across digital communications to complement expressions of celebration and indulgence, discussions of baking, as well as commentary about health, fitness, and diet.

The emoji cake is very commonly used to recognize or mark someone’s birthday in messages. A SnapChat filter, for instance, automatically inserts the emoji cake into the frame, while Facebook notes a user’s birthday by placing an emoji cake beside their name when they are active online. The emoji cake is often paired with the Balloon, Candle, Party Popper, and Wrapped Gift emojis to further emphasize the celebratory wishes or sentiment.

The emoji cake is similar to but not to be confused with the Shortcake emoji, a slice of strawberry shortcake also used to mark birthdays, other celebrations, or occasions of treating oneself.

As for the edible emoji cake, many websites (and their brick-and-mortar counterparts) offer recipes or party ideas for emoji cakes. Pictures of emoji cakes are popular on social-media platforms like Pinterest. Emoji-inspired baking is sometimes referred to as cakemoji.

🖥️ 🖥️: Commercial databases?

Despite the increasing visibility of emojis in court cases, legal commercial databases in the United States such as Lexis or Westlaw have not been able to catch up with the new developments and challenges.

Last year in 2019, Jennifer Behrens from the Duke Law Library conducted a brief experiment in several different legal databases. She aimed to search for emojis, emoticons and kaomojis[2]. The results were not encouraging, to say the least. The main problem is searchability. How do you accurately search for the emojis you are looking for in a commercial database that does not recognize such symbols? You can try to describe them. As in my example before, the emoji 🎂may be found using the keywords “birthday cake’. However, we are assuming that the court decisions also used the words “birthday cake” to describe that particular emoji. If they used other words or simply used the emoji and Westlaw indexed it using other words, then we are facing a major problem which might prevent access to the information we need for legal research.

Problems with access when doing legal research in popular commercial databases also raise the question of preservation. How we preserve cases in which emojis were used will become a fundamental piece on whether we can retrieve them later on and account for them properly. How do you index emojis? Who is the authoritative source? The Unicode Consortium? How do you display them in the different databases while taking into account the different updates/iterations these databases go through periodically? From a research standpoint, these are all valid questions with zero or minimal answers at the moment.

Where are all the Emoji Dictionaries and Grammar 📚?

With time, the conversation about emojis in the law will get even more complicated. In this age of virtual environments and remote work, people are using emojis more and more to communicate with each other, and to express complex ideas and feelings. Sooner or later, this massive and complex use will inevitably appear in our courthouses.

Above I described two free sources which can help you find the definition and usages of a particular emoji. However, emojis can also have multiple meanings depending on the context, language, culture, group, jurisdiction, etc. These complexities are exponentially increased when people use more than one emoji. Several emojis in one or multiple messages might add additional meanings: the order in which they were placed, in response to what, the angle in which they are placed, etc. Are we in need of treatises on the grammar of emojis?

And with that in mind, I leave you with my last thought: 👩‍🏫📚⚖️🖥️🗺️😃👩‍💻


[1] “Emoticons are punctuation marks, letters, and numbers used to create pictorial icons… Emojis are pictographs of faces, objects, and symbols.” Grannan, Cydney. What’s the Difference Between Emoji and Emoticons? Encyclopedia Britannica.

[2] Definition “Kaomoji (顔文字) is a popular Japanese emoticon style made up of Japanese characters and grammar punctuations, and are used to express emotion in texting and cyber communication.” Source:


  1. For further commentary on this subject, see Laurence Bich-Carrière, “Que Pensent les Tribunaux des Émojis, Émoticônes et Autres Pictogrammes?” 64 McGill L.J. 43 – When you look at the article on Westlaw, the first part of the title (which is emojis) is replaced with <> :)

  2. :D

    I had been watching the emoji references in the caselaw pile up and was waiting for someone to write a brief primer on the subject. Thanks for the excellent article.

  3. Thanks everyone for contributing more articles to this post! I have been following more and more caselaw with examples of emojis and emoticons from all over the world. I will look into posting an update to this post.