Do not retroactively change the pistol emoji

Apple: don’t retroactively change the pistol emoji. Just don’t. The costs far outweigh the benefits, and even if you’re successful, it will come back in another way, so we will be back to square one anyway (except we will not have recovered the costs).

When I first heard of the change, I was already skeptical, and after pondering it some more, I have reason to think the benefits are not worth the costs.

To begin with, by doing it this way Apple makes the change retroactive. Any piece of text (email, text message, blog post, article, photo caption, or of course tweet) with a pistol emoji has now had its meaning retroactively changed when viewed on the latest iOS 10 beta. This change does not just affect newly received messages: any time the pistol emoji was used in the last few years will be affected by this change.

Besides personal usage, this will represent an issue for researchers studying past texts. Tweets get archived, you know (even if these efforts still can’t be accessed). Will researchers who study these archives have to use special software to render the pistol emoji from texts pre-iOS 10 as a revolver, from texts from 2017 on as a water pistol, and from the intermediate period as something else to signal the ambiguity?

Even accounting just for immediate message interchange, the drawbacks of the semantic change during the transition period may kill the idea: Jeremy Burge mentioned one, but problems also exist the other way round: people sending the pistol emoji but the recipient interpreting it as merely being a water pistol and not taking them seriously.

It has been noticed that (at least up until recently) Microsoft has been using a futuristic/toy gun glyph to represent the pistol emoji without causing the same kind of reactions. This is worth noting as an interesting piece of context, however I don’t feel it constitutes precedent, as the Microsoft glyph still represents a lethal weapon, if a fantastic one, so I see it more as a stylistic variant (of which there are many of this caliber between emoji typefaces, be it with this glyph or others) of the same semantic base. And Microsoft has limited impact in this domain, anyway.

Besides, this sets a dangerous precedent, because if Apple can unilaterally force everyone to change the meaning in this way of one Unicode character, what’s to stop them from doing it again? Even with the best intentions of the world, to circumvent in this way the Unicode consortium is probably too much power given to one particular vendor, be it Apple or any other.

But then (in case that was not reason enough) another reason came to mind, and I started performing research, which very quickly bore fruit.

If you’ve ever read comics of the French-Belgian tradition (and even a few others), you are undoubtedly familiar with the graphical symbols used to represent swearing. And I have no doubt that they will all someday be able to be represented as part of text; most of them are in the emoji repertoire anyway, and it’s only a matter of when, not if, the few remaining ones will be standardized. And guess what I quickly found in the handful of such comics I have on hand?

Exerpt of a comic page, with in one panel a character using symbol swearing

(from a Les Tuniques Bleues book, “Mariage à Fort Bow”, page 24)

This is not rare; of course you’re not going to find any in, say, Astérix, but in anything thematically appropriate it’s going to be found. And you can’t retroactively change that. You just can’t.

Having the pistol emoji as such in Unicode for the purposes of symbol swearing will also be useful to “type” it so that it can be rendered as such by a lettering typeface. For instance, Blambot (if you’ve been reading a webcomic in the last few years, and it’s not hand lettered, then it’s most likely using a Blambot typeface) has a typeface for symbol swearing, called Potty Mouth BB, and yes, it does contain a pistol as part of its repertoire. Currently the font ”cheats” and uses ordinary letters to allow you to type up these symbols, much like the Symbol font of old, but at some point a Unicode update to support them will inevitably happen. And if by that point the original PISTOL emoji’s meaning will have been successfully watered down, the Unicode consortium will have no choice but to add a new REAL PISTOL or some such emoji to support the actual pistol in these typefaces. And the gun that you thought you had chased will have come back through the window.

So removing the gun emoji from the iOS keyboard would be fine. But don’t change it. Unless you want to go against every gun representation in the world, then good luck to you.

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