Last week on my Mac: Pistols at dawn

Apple has been getting a lot of stick for unreleased changes. First there was the ongoing storm over the supposed removal of headphone sockets from the next – and unannounced – model of iPhone. Then last week a change to the Pistol emoji caused a surge of criticism, even though it had only been made in a beta release of iOS 10, and presumably macOS Sierra.


Apple’s proposed change concerns the Pistol emoji, at present shown in OS X and iOS as a revolver, and for the last four years shown in Windows as a child’s plastic ‘ray’ gun. Microsoft has recently released (in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update) a completely redesigned set of emoji, in which its representation has now become that of a revolver.

Although announced almost simultaneously, and presented in Windows 10 as a compulsory update, but still only in testing for iOS 10 and macOS Sierra, criticism has only been levelled at Apple, as far as I can see. And that criticism has been based on two main issues, meaning and consistency, both of which apply equally to Microsoft’s change.

Taking the simpler of the two issues first, consistency, last week showed that there is no consistency across the graphics used to express emojis anyway: they look different according to platform, operating system, even minor releases of the same operating system. If you send a message to another user which relies on them seeing the same visual representation of any emoji, then you are likely to be disappointed, unless you know that they are using the exact same release of the same operating system. That is the way that emoji work, and if you don’t like it, you will have to embed a fixed graphic representation, or use words instead.

This is because of the way that we read meaning into emoji.

When we read written language, the visual and language areas of our brain assemble the graphic forms that we have seen into words, which we then look up in our mental lexicon. Although that lexicon often differs from published dictionaries, we have learned over years of language usage what meaning to associate with each word. In many cases, meanings are quite crisp and well-defined from an early age: few of us would have any difficulty understanding water-pistol, toy-pistol, handgun, and so on, as being distinct objects. We get a bit vaguer over emotional and conceptual words, whether love or ethos, for example, and then use contextual information to help refine meaning.

The first clue as to how we handle emoji (or emoticons) comes in the first part of the word: most are emotional rather than determining crisp physical objects: we are dealing with visual metaphors, which are far vaguer, and usually more heavily contextual.


When someone uses one of the most common and oldest emoji, the Grinning face, they do not mean that their face has turned yellow, gone bald, and lost its nose. It indicates humour and happiness. It might indicate that the preceding text is intended humorously, that the author is expressing their happiness with what has just been said, or a lot of other things, depending on how and where it is used. It is an expression of an emotional state or concept, not a crisp semantic nugget.


Some emoji appear to defy explanation of their meaning. One which has long puzzled me is known as Raised hand with part between middle and ring fingers, which is described on Emojipedia here – without any explanation as to its meaning, other than it also being known as Spock, Star Trek, or Vulcan Salute emoji. If someone were to send me a message containing that, it would be a semantic void to me, and even the biggest online reference to emoji seems unable to help me as to its meaning.

The example being used to criticise Apple’s proposal to change the iOS and macOS representation of the Pistol emoji is constructed around a fictitious message to meet at 2 pm tomorrow in a local park, and to “Bring it: 🔫”

This does not use the emoji as a visual metaphor, but as a literal depiction of an object. It claims that the author could innocently intend it to mean a water-pistol (or other toy), and the recipient or others saw it as meaning a handgun, a firearm. The article also claims that “all other vendors display this emoji as a real gun”, which is not true: Microsoft has only just changed from displaying it as a toy ‘ray’ gun, and anyone still using Microsoft’s previous representations will still see it as such.

However, Jeremy Burge claims in a footnote: “The difference here is that Apple’s emojis have much greater influence and reach than those on Windows.” So it did not matter that, until last week, all Windows users ‘understood’ Pistol to mean a toy ‘ray’ gun, but next week those who have been updated will understand it as meaning a real revolver?

The truth is that anyone relying on a literally pictorial meaning of Pistol – even if Apple does not change to a water-pistol – is likely to be in for a surprise. Those who read emojis so literally would be better off sticking to words, which tend to work that way, most of the time. Because if you perform the obvious verbal substitution “Bring it: a pistol” your readers will still not know for sure whether you are referring to a Smith & Wesson revolver, or a water-pistol.

Those who are upset by Apple’s proposed change should equally campaign for the term water-pistol to be changed to something different, like water-squirter, to ensure that there is no possibility of confusion. The rest of us will just get along using language – traditional and emoji – with a bit of intelligence.