Humans have been using animals as symbols for centuries, from cave paintings to the Chinese zodiac, where each year is represented by a different animal.
Today, with the explosion of emoji onto the communication scene in the 2010s, animal-based emoji have been adopted for their symbolism, too. And, it’s not just the three wise monkeys emoji, ??????, that have deeper meanings. Sometimes, a lobster isn’t just a lobster …
Lobsters, besides being delicious, if distinctly un-kosher, became an official emoji in 2018. Obviously, the lobster emoji, ??, depicting the bright red crustacean, is often used to represent lobsters and other shellfish.
But, it has also been adopted by the transgender community, which has been lobbying the Unicode Consortium for a blue-and-pink transgender flag emoji for several years. They were very disappointed when Unicode 11.0 was released in 2018 and they saw their efforts unrewarded. So, they took to the lobster emoji instead, as the lobster is a gynandromorph, “an organism that contains both male and female characteristics.”
The lobster emoji is also used in romantic posts and declarations of love, thanks to a memorable scene about lobsters mating for life on the sitcom Friends.
Because its life cycle involves a caterpillar that wraps itself in a chrysalis until it emerges as a winged creature, the insect is associated with beauty and transformation.
So, when the butterfly emoji, ??, took flight in 2016, people quickly adapted it to represent change, hope, and new beginnings. It is often included in posts about life getting better after a hard time or to encourage and support people who are experiencing challenges.
While it’s not officially associated with the LGBTQ youth empowerment It Gets Better project, people often include it in posts expressing that sentiment.
And, because feeling “butterflies” in your stomach is associated with the nervous excitement of new love, the butterfly emoji can also signify you have a crush or are falling in love.
OK, OK, the unicorn is an imaginary animal, but we had to include it in our rundown of animal emoji symbolism, because this mythic creature, including its emoji form, can have many different meanings.
In the LGBTQ community, the word unicorn is slang for a bisexual woman who sleeps with heterosexual couples. This term is referenced with the unicorn face (or unicorn) emoji, ??, which debuted in 2015.
More generally, though, people in the LGBTQ community may use the unicorn emoji to express pride or signal identity, connecting the emoji’s often rainbow-colored horn to the rainbow flag.
These aren’t the only hidden meanings of the unicorn emoji, however. Business people call a startup valued at over $1 billion a unicorn, something achieved by the likes of Uber and Airbnb. So, tech professionals may include the unicorn emoji in content about such companies.
The dove of peace emoji, ???, also called dove emoji, may look like just another bird emoji at first glance. But, note how it is carrying an olive branch. This alludes to just a little foundational story in the Old Testament, where a dove carrying an olive branch appears to Noah after the Flood. It’s regarded as a symbol of peace, especially by Jews and Christians, including in its emoji form.
The dove of peace emoji can also signal peace in a secular context. If you’re feuding with a friend and ready to make amends, send them a small dove emoji … just saying.
It is also used in posts about loved ones who have passed away to signal rest in peace. Others have adopted the dove emoji simply to represent birds or express a love of nature.