Yellow and pink and blue: I can make a Unicode standard too

I put quite a lot of effort into researching, composing, and publishing articles here, but sometimes that effort comes back to bite me. Last week, I published two articles about quarantine flags in macOS. I don’t normally use emojis in my posts here, and very seldom in their titles. But in this case, I wanted to include the international Quarantine flag, known as Flag Lima, with black and yellow chequers. That is the flag still flown from ships in harbour when they remain under quarantine, before being allowed free entry into a port. It would have been very appropriate to my two articles.

So I reached up for the Emoji & Symbols viewer at the right of my Mac’s menubar, and browsed through the large display of flags among the emoji listed. There was no Flag Lima to be found.

Fortunately, that window supports search, so I put in the word yellow. There is no plain yellow square in any of the Unicode code points which would have sufficed.


I did, though, see the 🎗 Reminder Ribbon, which seemed quite appropriate given the behaviour of quarantine flags in macOS. It’s also – and here you may need to suspend your disbelief for a few lines – bright yellow, in reference to the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree from the early 1970s, which was the cue for the first modern use of a folded ribbon as an awareness symbol.

If anything, that was even better: yellow for quarantine (think Yellow Fever, one of the old reasons for quarantine of ships), a ribbon for awareness and memory – just perfect for quarantine flags in macOS.


The first of my pair of articles published here just as I was about to leave the house on Thursday morning. The ribbon had mysteriously changed colour to blue, which was the colour of my language when I noticed what had happened.


So just what is the colour of Unicode code point U+1F397? How could WordPress possibly have found me a blue ribbon when everywhere else it’s yellow?

The answer is that the Unicode standard fails to define that emoji’s colour. It could be anything from black to green. Seriously. The official Unicode character properties for code point U+1F397 don’t even mention colour. Blue is just fine as far as the standard (a significant word in this context) is concerned.


I appealed to Emojipedia, a wonderful resource on all things emoji, where it showed me that some implementations are actually pink. Microsoft, Facebook and LG think that’s fine.


The infuriating thing is that wherever I look, even on Wikipedia, this ribbon is yellow, except on my own blog articles. And, unlike with some Unicode emoji, there’s no character modifier which allows me to set the colour, I just get whatever I’m given.

I’ve long had my doubts about the ability of emoji, particularly those included in Unicode, to support even the vaguest emotional communication. This only goes to show how flawed they are. So I’m sorry if you were somewhat mystified by the appearance of unrelated emoji in the titles of those two articles. It wasn’t me, it was a standard which in this case doesn’t appear to define anything meaningful.