Fan Club

By | April 15, 2016

I confess that I am not a big fan of emoji, so my first thought when I read that the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2015 Word of the Year was an emoji symbol was, “Civilization continues its downward spiral.” The actual “Word” of the Year that wasn’t actually a word was “Face with Tears of Joy,” and there is no way on Earth I am reproducing it here.

It’s tempting (at least for me) to think that the word “emoji” is related to “emoticon,” the combination of letters, numbers, and punctuation to form smiley and frowny faces, and other little pre-emoji ways of expressing oneself without using actual words. (Japanese emoticons are called “kaomoji.”) Admittedly, there is one emoticon I have used on occasion: I8-#)““’. I came across it in a clue in an emoticon-themed New York Times crossword puzzle back in 1995 (puzzle by Dean Niles): it’s a Groucho Marx emoticon. Other historical, fictional, or otherwise famous characters included in the puzzle were Abraham Lincoln ==} : ‡]] , Colonel Klink [g-}] , and Charlie Chaplin cI[ : -= )I .

Anyway, back to emoji (if we must). The word is unrelated to emoticon, and in fact comes from the Japanese 絵文字, or e (“picture”) + moji (“letter, character”). It was invented in 1995 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee at Japan’s Nippon Telephone & Telegraph (NTT) Docomo, a company that made pagers which, at the time, were all the rage among Japanese teenagers. However, NTT was trying to make its mobile devices more business-friendly—which turned off the teens. So they made an about-face (as it were) and decided to find a reason for teens to stop fleeing to rival devices. That reason, apparently, was emoji.

Emoji started appearing on Japanese mobile devices in the late 1990s, but were slow to make it across the Pacific. As Oxford implies, the use of emoji hit critical mass among English users in 2015.

Sometimes emoji are obvious, but I confess I often have no idea what 90 percent of emoji symbols mean. Someone once showed me a text conversation that consisted of 99-percent emoji and all I could think was, “Is there a secret decoder ring for this?”

Hand FanBut then I was reminded (at least for the sake of this essay) that in Victorian England, similarly cryptic conversations were carried on using hand fans. Yes, hand fans. In fact, there was said to be a whole “language of the fan,” and, as with texting abbreviations and (I would imagine) emoji, dictionaries were needed to define it.

When one thinks of the dictionary (assuming anyone thinks of the dictionary), one usually thinks of Noah Webster, but my mind more readily goes to Dr. Samuel Johnson, if only because of this classic exchange from the British TV comedy Blackadder the Third (1987):

Dr. Johnson (Robbie Coltrane): Here it is, sir: the very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.

Edmund (Rowan Atkinson): Every single one, sir?

Dr. Johnson (confidently): Every single word, sir!

Edmund (to Prince): Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

Dr. Johnson: What?

Edmund: “Contrafribularites,” sir? It is a common word down our way…

Dr. Johnson: Damn! (writes in the book)

Edmund: Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.

Dr. Johnson: What? What? WHAT?

We continue. The need for a good dictionary was driven largely by the invention of printing. When the printed book was first produced in the latter half of the 15th century, only one percent of the population of Europe was literate. As a result, there was little demand for a dictionary, since no one really read or wrote, except for academics and the clergy, so no one really needed anything defined. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the earliest dictionaries were foreign-language dictionaries, containing little more than lists of English words translated into French, Italian, and other languages.

By the mid-1500s, as the printed book proliferated, literacy in Europe had reached 50 percent and kept climbing. Then there were newspapers, chapbooks, pamphlets—all manner of printed materials were readily available. As more people became capable of reading, the more they needed to occasionally look up words they didn’t know. Dozens of dictionaries started to appear, but the problem was, they more often than not were just lexicons of antiquated, foreign, obscure, or what we would call “five dollar” words. “The early lexicographers failed to give sufficient sense of [the English] language as it appeared in use. All proceeded by plagiarizing their predecessors,” according to historian Henry Hitchings (Hitchings, 2005).

In 1746, a group of London printers contacted Johnson and offered him 1,500 guineas (about $315,000 in today’s dollars) to write a dictionary. It took him nine years, and amazingly he accomplished it virtually single-handedly. (By the way, the house where he compiled the dictionary, 17 Gough Square in London, is now a museum, located right around the corner from the excellent Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. I highly recommend both of these attractions—not necessarily in that order—should one find oneself in London.)

Anyway, the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, contained 42,773 words and their definitions. The truly revolutionary thing about Johnson’s dictionary was that he was the first lexicographer to follow the definition of a word with a quotation showing the word used in context, usually via literary quotations from the likes of Shakespeare and Milton. In his definitions, he sometimes editorialized, often at the expense of the Scottish. His infamous definition of oats was, “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” On the other hand, he defined “lexicographer” as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”

One might wonder why the booksellers had approached Johnson. He was extraordinarily well-read and knowledgeable (his family owned a bookstore) and he had been making a bit of a name for himself as a poet, playwright, and biographer. His first steady writing gig was for The Gentleman’s Magazine. Founded in 1731 by London printer Edward Cave, The Gentleman’s Magazine was a monthly general interest magazine, and was the first publication to use the word “magazine,” which Cave borrowed from the French word magazine, or “storehouse.” The first true magazine, although it didn’t call itself that, was Erbauliche Monaths Unterredungen (“Edifying Monthly Discussions”), a German philosophy periodical that was published from 1663 to 1668.

Johnson was a regular contributor to The Gentleman’s Magazine, and in a 1738 story about British Parliamentary debates, Johnson coined the term “Columbia” to poetically refer to America. It stuck.

As for The Gentleman’s Magazine, it ran for almost 200 years, finally ceasing publication in 1922. If you had been reading it in 1740, well, you’d be really old now, but you may have seen an ad for “The New Fashioned Speaking FAN!” You’d be likely to see this kind of thing in electronics publications today, and would probably refer to some kind of electronic fan that actually spoke to you as it cooled a room. Back in the 18th century, though, what it referred to was a kind of sign language in which the motions of a hand fan could be translated into letters of the alphabet. I kid you not. It could be a little complicated:

The alphabet, with the exception of J, was split into five sections. These sections corresponded to one of the following movements:

  • Moving the fan with the left hand to the left arm
  • Moving the fan with the right hand to the left arm
  • Placing the fan against the bosom
  • Raising the fan to the mouth
  • Raising the fan to the forehead

In order to signal a letter two movements were necessary. The first corresponded to one of the five alphabet groups, and the second told the letter’s position in the group. For example, to signal “D”, one would use movement 1 (first section of the alphabet), followed by movement 4 (fourth letter in that section of the alphabet.

Over time, an alternative to this laborious letter-by-letter approach developed, and instead had specific fan movements denote certain phrases. Some examples:

  • To hold the fan with the right hand in front of the face. “Follow me.”
  • To hold it in the left ear. “I want you to leave me alone.”
  • To move it with the left hand. “They are watching us.”
  • To change it to the right hand. “You are imprudent.”

The language of fans wasn’t always subtle:

  • To hold the fan in the lips. “Kiss me.”
  • To throw the fan. “I hate you.”

And I certainly can’t think of hand fans without thinking of the flirting scene in Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

Now, whether this “language of the fan” was ever actually used is actually open to debate. The idea apparently derived from what is believed to be a satirical letter to The Spectator in 1711, and such a language is said to be a 19th-century marketing invention by fan sellers. (Indeed, there are no references outside of current fan merchants’ websites.)

Still, a secret language of fans makes about as much sense as emoji. Hmm. Is there an emoji figure with a fan over its face?

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.



“Ladies Decorative Fans: Bootcamps for Coquettes,” Jane Austen’s World, July 25, 2009,

Jeff Blagdon, “How emoji conquered the world,” The Verge, March 4, 2013,

“The language of the hand fan,” TheHandFan,

“Johnson’s Dictionary—Oats,” British Library,

Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 55.

“Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015 is…,” Oxford Dictionaries Blog, November 15, 2016,

A Dictionary of the English Language,” Wikipedia, last modified on March 5, 2016, retrieved March 28, 2016,

“Emoji,” Wikipedia, last modified on March 29, 2016, retrieved March 29, 2016,

“European hand fans in the 18th century,” Wikipedia, last modified on September 6, 2015, retrieved March 28, 2016,

The Gentleman’s Magazine,” Wikipedia, last modified on March 4, 2016, retrieved March 28, 2016,

“Samuel Johnson,” Wikipedia, last modified on March 8, 2016, retrieved March 28, 2016,


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