What Popular Emoji Faces and Symbols Mean (2024)

Emoji meanings can be incredibly confusing. Is he crying from laughter or just crying? Learn how to decode emojis with our handy guide.

So excited for tonight! 🥳 So excited for tonight! 😴 So excited for tonight! 💃 So excited for tonight! 💋 These sentences are all nearly identical, but they’re saying very different things—that’s the power of emojis. These little pictures really are worth a thousand words, allowing people to express a wide range of emotions through emotionless digital platforms like texting and social media. As a result, they have transcended the world of tech and entered our everyday lexicon. But emoji meanings aren’t always as straightforward as they seem, and popular emojis can have several different meanings. (Looking at you, peach emoji. 🍑)

“People tend to project their own meanings onto emojis. Even in general usage, they can mean lots of different things, and the meanings can change over time,” says Keith Broni, editor-in-chief of Emojipedia, the definitive guide to all things emoji. “They often follow trends.” One recent example of that: the cry-laughing face being replaced by the skull emoji to express humor.

As of September 2023, the Unicode Standard (the body that regulates emojis) lists 3,782 emojis—with new emojis being added every year. That’s way more emojis than we can cover and way more than you’re likely to use, so we asked Broni and mined Emojipedia for the most common emojis and their meanings—at least at this moment. Read on to find out if you’ve been using them right or (gulp!) wrong.

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About the expert

  • Keith Broni is the editor-in-chief of Emojipedia, the definitive guide to all things emoji, where he covers global emoji use and monitors changes to emoji design sets.

The meanings behind popular emojis

Smiley-face emojis

The red heart emoji is the most popular emoji, but variations on the smiley face take three of the top 10 spots, Broni says. These faces convey nearly any emotion a human face could convey—from disgust to love to “I see something tasty!” The default color is yellow, since it’s seen as a “neutral” skin tone, but you can change your settings to customize them to five different skin tones. Once your preferred emojis are set, you can create shortcuts on your iPhone to access them easily.

EmojiEmoji nameWhen to use it
Cry-laughing faceAnytime you’d use LOL (laugh out loud) as a reaction or to show that you mean something in a funny, lighthearted way.
SkullTo convey you’re dying from laughter or to say “I’m dead” from how funny or ironic something is.
Upside-down smiley faceTo convey sarcasm, irony or a sense of “Oh, well!”
Relieved faceTo show relief or modest contentment.
Grinning face with sweatThis is the visual equivalent of saying “Phew!” while wiping sweat from your forehead, like you just had a close call. It can also be used to show worry or discomfort.
Smirking faceIt can indicate sarcasm or chagrin, but it’s most often used when getting a little racy while flirting over text.
Screaming faceTo show fear or exaggerated disbelief.
Smiling face with sunglassesTo say something’s cool. It may also be used to express confidence or a carefree feeling.
Sleeping faceTo show you’re tired, need a nap or want to go to bed, or that you are so bored, you’re falling asleep.
Sleepy faceThat’s actually a snot bubble, not a tear. But most people use this emoji to show sadness, displeasure or illness, not sleepiness.
Smiling face with open handsTo show a positive emotion or care. It can also be used to indicate a hug.
Face savoring foodTo say that something is delicious.
Side-eye or unamused faceAnytime you’d give someone a side-eye, whether that’s to show annoyance, disapproval or skepticism.
Grimacing faceTo convey any negative emotion, like nervousness, awkwardness and embarrassment.
Face without a mouthTo indicate you’ve been rendered speechless. It can also be interpreted as very deliberately not commenting, such as when you’re gossiping.
Crying faceTo show you’re genuinely sad about something.
Loudly crying faceTo express any intense emotion, from sadness to joy to pride. It can also be used to represent over-the-top silly sadness.
Confused faceThis is more likely to be used to express slight frustration or sadness than confusion.
Winking face with tongue outTo show joking, laughter or wackiness.
Smiling face with heartsTo convey happiness, love and affection.
Star struckTo show you’re super impressed or excited.
Face blowing a kissWhen you want to send a digital kiss goodbye or a kiss goodnight. It may also be used indicate general affection or even understanding.
Shushing faceCan you keep a secret?
Thinking faceTo show that you’re thinking or considering, but it can also be used to show skepticism.
Partying faceAnytime you want to celebrate, wish someone a happy birthday, say congratulations or … party!
Nerd faceTo call yourself a nerd in a self-deprecating, humorous way.
Melting faceWhen you’re feeling embarrassed, ashamed, worried or overwhelmed.
Face with rolling eyesAnytime you would roll your eyes in real life—to show annoyance, disbelief, frustration or boredom—or to say “Whatever.”
Nauseated faceThis emoji is used more often to show disgust than actual nausea, but you can use it to indicate physical illness as well.
Hot faceTo indicate that someone is smoking hot—as in sexy. You can also use it to show that you are feeling warm or just finished a good, sweaty workout, but the first usage is the most common one.
Spiral eyes faceIt’s most often used as slang for drunkenness, but it can also be used to show you’re feeling dizzy or disoriented.
Exploding headAnytime you’d say “Mind blown!”
Flushed faceTo express embarrassment or shock. It can also indicate flattery, surprise or disbelief.
Pleading faceWhen you’re begging, truly sad or feeling overwhelmed by a kind gesture.

Plant and animal emojis

Most animals and plants are used to represent exactly what they are—a tiger will mean tiger, and a flower will mean flower—but they are often used more for their color palette. For instance, the pink flamingo and pink flower are commonly used in captions for pink-themed social media posts. “People often use these to show an affiliation to a hobby, sports team or other group,” Broni says. Fans of the Miami Dolphins football team unsurprisingly use the dolphin emoji. However, some plant and animal emojis have more subtle meanings that you should know.

EmojiEmoji nameWhen to use it
See-no-evil monkeyWhen you’re cringing or embarrassed or you’ve heard something you really don’t want to know.
Smiling cat with heart eyesAs popular replacement for the regular heart-eyes emoji—to show love, adoration or excitement.
SnakeTo imply someone is lying or being deceptive.
Clown faceTo say that someone is acting silly, foolish, selfish or dumb. It almost never means something is funny. This one is very popular on social media.
HerbWhen you want to talk about marijuana without spelling it out.
Four-leaf cloverTo show luck or good fortune.
MushroomSometimes a mushroom is just a mushroom. But sometimes a ‘shroom refers to psychedelic drugs.
Cherry blossomTo say something is cute, precious or beautiful.
SunflowerTo show happiness or platonic love.

Food emojis

Like plants and animals, most food emojis aren’t that deep, but there are some that have been co-opted for spicier meanings—and we don’t mean that in a burn-your-mouth kind of way. “Even if you don’t use these regularly, it’s good to know what they mean so you know what other people are really trying to say or so you don’t accidentally make a mistake in a business setting,” Broni says.

EmojiEmoji nameWhen to use it
CherriesAs a euphemism for breasts.
EggplantAs a euphemism for a penis. It’s so popular that this has become basically its only meaning. If you’re trying to talk about the vegetable, you should spell it out to avoid confusion.
PeachAs a euphemism for buttocks. This emoji is so popular for this meaning that people have begun referring to their butt as their “peach” in real life.
Hot pepperTo say something or someone is spicy. Often used in place of “sexy” or “hot.”
PineappleSometimes used as a euphemism for swinging or polyamory.
PopcornWhen you want to convey that you’re watching something entertaining but from a distance—i.e., you’re a spectator to the show.
Clinking glassesTo toast someone or celebrate.
Tropical drinkTo show you’re resting happily or on vacation.
Hot beverageTo share the latest gossip, or “spill the tea.”

Hand and body-part emojis

Just like in real life, hands and body parts are used to express a wide range of thoughts and feelings. “We often see these used in combination with other emojis to make a new meaning,” Broni says. For example, the pinching hand 🤏 next to the money bag 💰 means someone doesn’t make much money.

EmojiEmoji nameWhen to use it
Folded handsTo show you are praying for someone.
Flexing armTo show strength or power. It can also be used in reference to a solid workout.
Pinching handWhen you want to say something is close or akin to, or say it’s little or small. Often used in conjunction with other emojis … like the eggplant.
Pinched fingersOne of the most confusing emojis, it can mean frustration, anger, patience, dumpling, “What do you mean?” or “chef’s kiss” perfection. It all depends on the context.
ShruggingTo say “I don’t know,” “I don’t care” or “Whatever.”
Oncoming fistTo give someone a virtual fist bump.
EyesTo look lustfully at someone, or to give someone or something the side-eye, showing that you don’t trust it.
Waving handTo get someone’s attention. It’s often used by scammers trying to make a digital connection, so be wary of this emoji.
Person gesturing noAnytime you want to give a definitive “no.”
Kiss markAnytime you’d write “xoxo” or you want to show affection.

Heart emojis

“The longest article on Emojipedia discusses the heart emoji because there’s just so much you can say with them,” Broni says. It was the first emoji created (in black and white), and as noted earlier, the red heart is the most commonly used emoji. This simple symbol is used to convey so much more than just love! There are more than 40 emojis that use hearts, and each one has a slightly different meaning. While we have a complete guide to all the heart emoji meanings, here are a few highlights you should know.

EmojiEmoji nameWhen to use it
Red heartTo signify love, agreement, acceptance, happiness, friendship, romance and almost any other positive emotion.
Growing heartAnytime you want to express that your heart is expanding—with love, pride or joy. This design replaced the basic pink heart.
Blue heartTo show love of a product or brand. Also popular when discussing politics.
Yellow heartTo convey a “neutral” positive emotion. The yellow color indicates it’s not a red heart, so it’s showing general approval or enjoyment.
Broken heartTo show heartbreak, deep sorrow or empathy, or to send condolences.
Heart with arrowTo share romantic feelings.

Miscellaneous emojis

Despite the universally accepted emoji meanings, it’s not uncommon for families, co-workers or friend groups to take an emoji and give it a special meaning, Broni says. Using the emoji can be a bonding experience, showing that you’re “in the know” and a part of the group. Random emojis are often used for these, but here are some miscellaneous emojis with fairly standard meanings.

EmojiEmoji nameWhen to use it
Pile of poopAnytime you’d talk about poop (or the other four-letter variation), literally or figuratively.
Party popperTo celebrate good news, a birthday or something banal but still exciting to you.
Sports medalTo give someone kudos or recognize something great they did.
Bull’s-eyeWhen someone nails exactly what you were thinking or makes a great point.
SparklesTo convey anything happy, from a clean kitchen to new boyfriend.
MegaphoneWhen you have an announcement to make and you really want the person to pay attention.
LightbulbWhen you have a great idea.
100 pointsMost commonly used to represent “100%”—as in you totally agree with someone or you’re just keeping it real.
Double exclamation pointTo show extra excitement or emphasis, commonly used on iPhones as one of the default emoji responses to texts.
Check markWhen something is all done.

More emojis

There’s a lot of emoji meanings we didn’t cover here, so if you’re stuck for an emoji, check out Emojipedia. It not only shows how every single emoji ever invented looks on every kind of device and platform, but it also contains a brief explanation of its meaning, history and related emojis, as well as a copy-and-paste box. It’s a (second-best) resource for all your emoji questions, so you don’t accidentally send your boss something better suited for a group chat with your besties. In case the damage has already been done, here’s how to unsend an iMessage.

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Sources:

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What Popular Emoji Faces and Symbols Mean (2024)
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