are we using uwu wrong

uwu

A thing that recently messed me up is that nobody knows where uwu comes from and that it’s younger than I thought. The :) emoticon is practically ancient, and emoji has exploded in the smartphone era when keyboards went digital and could thus be rapidly expanded. uwu exists somewhere in-between.

I’ll back up for a sec. uwu is an expression popular in certain online circles (often ones interested in Eastern culture, like anime or k-pop) and on certain platforms like Tumblr, which deal heavily in fandom. The top Urban Dictionary entry for it does a really nice job of summing up its whole deal:

A texting emoticon used to show cuteness but also is sin to the internet world. It is basically banned worldwide never use in any circumstances unless you want to be attacked.

The first part on cuteness tracks with uwu’s most conventional usage these days: as a face with eyes serenely closed, mouth curled into a meek grin. To me, it’s akin to 😌 or ☺️. The second part of the definition, which refers to it as a “sin,” also tracks. Deploying uwu these days feels a bit like using a Myspace-era expression like “rawr XD” or “squee!” It can evoke a forced cutesiness that veers from familiarity into discomfort.

uwu comes from that period just before emoji took over, when emoticons weren’t good enough and more elaborate expressions like kaomoji were beginning to gain traction online. Unlike western emoticons, which are generally read by turning one’s head sideways, kaomoji can be read horizontally, often using characters buried in Unicode that are more obscure to a western audience.

Consider this angry guy flipping a table:

(ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻

You might say that expressions like uwu are a simplification of the kaomoji style.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all of this because of a thing I saw on Tumblr.

The user pronglewongle is actually citing the Know Your Meme which does trace uwu all the way back to 2005, which feels more recent than I thought. I kinda expected it to be older. Based on the KYM edit history, the user Dreamworks drilled down to DaakuKitsune’s work over the course of an evening in 2016, changing a 2013 origin to a 2011 origin, and then managing to get even further back to 2005ish.

And yes, it does appear in the sixth and final chapter of DaakuKitsune’s Yu-Gi-Oh fanfiction, “Genie of the Puzzle.” The piece was last updated in November of 2006, so it’s more likely that that’s when the uwu was added, but who knows. Though it almost certainly is not the earliest use of uwu, as the KYM entry itself notes, its status as “earliest known” is enough to immortalize “Genie of the Puzzle” in the canon. As a result, the comments on Chapter 6 have become something of an internet holy site that the perpetually logged on occasionally make pilgrimage to.

Aside from their Fanfiction.net profile, DaakuKitsune has a pretty small internet footprint. Their only other substantial presence is on DeviantArt, where their body of work largely consists of late-aughts forum flair like these. (There’s a slight possibility that these might be two different users but their similar commenting styles lead me to suspect that they are one and the same.)

DaakuKitsune is clearly well-versed in the intricacies of online language. Their comments feature frequent use of uwu-like expressions, and they’re clearly willing to explain things to others. From the comments on that second stamp:

Here’s a stamp that comes close to an uwu along with some adjoining comments discussing and using other expressions like =w= and >w< . You can see how uwu might fit right into the dialogue of this crowd. In all of these, the “w” seems to represent pursed lips or a mouth made small.

What has been fucking me up the more I stare at it, however, is a sense that our contemporary use of uwu differs substantially from its earliest known usage.

In the Notes section before Chapter 6 of “Genie of the Puzzle,” DaakeKitsune responds to readers before the narrative resumes. Here’s the passage in question (emphasis added):

Wheee! Sarah/ryoulover4ever was my 200th reviewer! I'm sorry this took so long! -/smacks self/- Again, feel free to throw squids and fish at me. UwU I deserve it, I know.

Something about this feels very off to me. DaakuKitsune is apologizing and bracing for reader critique. Let’s look at the passage again, this time substituting in text of what the uwu represents, according to Dictionary.com:

Again, feel free to throw squids and fish at me. [“an emoticon depicting a cute face … used to express various warm, happy, or affectionate feelings”] I deserve it, I know.

Why would someone use an uwu right after acknowledging they deserve criticism and a (quirky, marine life-based) punishment? The answer is: they wouldn’t.

Let’s try it again, this time subbing in a more modern emoji character in place of a standard uwu.

Again, feel free to throw squids and fish at me. [☺️] I deserve it, I know.

It’s weird, right? A tonal mish-mash. Using a face like “Smiling Face” or “Relieved Face” doesn’t seem to fit the tone of the phrase either, even though their eyes are closed — like the “U” characters in uwu — and they look generally cute.

You might say that there are no synonyms for uwu, and I’ll entertain that idea. But watch what happens when we use an emoji like the “Confounded Face.”

Again, feel free to throw squids and fish at me. [😖] I deserve it, I know.

It fits the phrase perfectly. It’s “w”-like mouth, similar to uwu, tucked into a bracing grimace.

All of this leads me to theorize that the oldest known use of uwu deploys it in a dramatically different context than the one we are now used to. Which is fine, because internet language is rarely prescriptive — there is never one exact right way to use ambiguous pictographs like emoji and emoticons. In fact, that’s how they derive their power: allowing the reader to use the surrounding conversational context to figure out exactly what they mean.

Still, I’m not quite sure how uwu might have gone from a grimace to a cute face. Regardless, kinda neat.


Elsewhere…


Thank you for reading BNet. uwu