The Meaning Behind The Question Mark In A Box Emoji

It’s throwing some well-deserved shade.

by Caroline Burke and Bustle Editors
Originally Published: 
What does a question mark in a box mean? The emoji has a simple meaning.

When visitors enter the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, before beelining for Monet’s water lilies or Warhol’s pop art, they’re greeted by a work from the museum’s permanent collection: The Original Emoji by Shigetaka Kurita. Created in Japan in the ’90s, the 176-piece alphabet, which is displayed on the museum’s ground floor, looks downright silly compared to its 2021 counterparts — more akin to ’90s Perler Beads than what you’d find on your phone today. Clearly, the visual language has adapted in the past 30 years. But one curious symbol has outlasted the test of time: the annoying question mark emoji.

When iOS updates include new emojis, the image — of a question mark in a box — stands in for a new emoticon you don’t have access to. It means your friend is using an emoji that’s only available in a newer software version. If you have an Android, this placeholder character will show up as an empty rectangle, according to Emojipedia. People who take forever to update their phones are likely familiar with it.

To find out what the question mark emoji should look like, it’s a simple solve. Just update your phone to the latest iOS release or Android version to see what emoji someone’s sending you — perhaps a melting face or a disco ball? Typically, you need a little extra space on your phone to install the update, so fiddle with your settings to free up storage if you’re having trouble downloading it.

How Often Do New Emojis Come Out?

Roughly once a year, the nonprofit organization Unicode Consortium approves a new set of emojis to standardize a uniform alphabet. Unicode tracks languages and emojis globally, so when it started governing emojis in the mid-aughts, it begged the question: Are emojis the 21st century hieroglyphics? Is this panoply of images humans’ first universal language?

The word itself suggests as much, with “e meaning ‘picture’ and moji ‘character,” according to the MoMA website. In 2014, the Library of Congress even acquired a 736-page emoji adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Emoji Dick.

“It’s not a language, but conceivably, it could develop into one, like Chinese did,” Mark Davis, co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium, told The New York Times in 2015. “Pictures can acquire a particular meaning in a particular culture. I’ll mention the infamous eggplant emoji, which has gotten to have a particular meaning in American culture, one which is not shared in a lot of cultures.”

The organization’s most recent emoji update, Unicode 14.0, was released in September 2021. It included 217 new emojis, including a flaming heart, bearded people, and interracial and same-sex couples. Different tech platforms take these new emojis and adapt them for their platforms, which is why the same emojis look slightly different depending on if you see them in iMessage, on Twitter, or elsewhere on the ‘net.

Want to celebrate the wild world of emojis more? July 17 marks World Emoji Day, created by Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge in 2014. So pick your favorite smiley or hand emoji, and make sure to update your iOS before then, lest you invite a slew of question mark emojis your way.

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