Special Characters

Q. Hi! I was wondering if you recommend uppercase or lowercase for names of emoji. Capitalizing provides clarity, but it also does an end run around the issue of whether to hyphenate something like “winking-face emoji.” If it’s capitalized, no hyphens needed: “Winking Face emoji.” Plus the hyphens look bad aesthetically in my opinion. 🤮😉 Thanks so much for your input—I appreciate it! This is an issue fiction editors are running across with more and more frequency.

A. You’re right that initial caps can provide clarity while circumventing ye olde hyphenation conundrum. But whether it’s the Winking Face emoji or Face with Open Mouth Vomiting (to use the Unicode names for those two icons), initial caps, though helpful, are likely to seem like overkill in fiction and many other contexts outside of emoji documentation. And we agree that hyphens could likewise become tiresome: face-with-open-mouth-vomiting emoji? 🤮

Unicode, the international consortium that assigns names and code points to every character on your screen, including emoji, uses all capital letters in its code charts and related documentation for what it calls formal character names to differentiate these from alternative names and descriptions. For example, the chart that includes the Vulcan salute emoji lists the following: “1F596 🖖 RAISED HAND WITH PART BETWEEN MIDDLE AND RING FINGERS = Vulcan salute.” Or, in another chart, there’s the “face palm” emoji: “1F926 🤦 FACE PALM = frustration, disbelief.”

Some observations: (1) Emoji names that aren’t already hyphenated can usually be left unhyphenated even when the name precedes and modifies the word “emoji” (e.g., the Vulcan salute emoji or even the face with open mouth vomiting emoji). (2) When you need to single out an emoji name for any reason, try quotation marks instead of all caps or initial caps (e.g., the “face palm” emoji). (3) When the name as such isn’t the focus, you won’t need quotation marks or caps, but be sure to adjust capitalization and spelling as needed to match the style of the surrounding text.

Relative to the last point, “Vulcan” is a proper noun, so it keeps its capital V. But in Chicago style one would refer to the facepalm emoji, not the face palm emoji—because in Merriam-Webster the noun form of “facepalm” (here used attributively) is one word.

In sum, though it’s fine to refer to, for example, the Winking Face emoji when it’s important to single out the name—and though CMOS doesn’t yet rule on this—we would suggest quotation marks as a useful alternative for most contexts. And when the name isn’t the focus, there’s no need to use either quotation marks or caps—or, in most cases, hyphens.