Emoji (which technically speaking is both the singular and the plural form of the word) are little pictures that can be used in place of a single character in digital text, thus allowing emoji fans to succinctly express a wide range of concepts and emotions. (Oddly enough they nearly always pick 'I am currently crying with laughter'.)

As well as faces showing various expressions, emoji run the gamut from animals and food items (the aubergine is particularly popular for reasons we cannot possibly imagine) to buildings, vehicles and flags.

Emoji first appeared on Macs as far back as OS X 10.7 Lion, and more emoji are continually being added; macoS 10.13.1, entering beta at time of writing, adds a giraffe, a hedgehog, a brain, a 'Shhh!' smiley, gender-neutral and hijab-wearing faces and a vampire.

In this article we show how to use emoji on your Mac. (If you liked similar advice for your mobile devices, try How to use emoji on iPhone and iPad.)

How to place an emoji in text

Emoji are special characters, each one designated by a piece of unique code set centrally by the Unicode Consortium. But each OS maker decides how that character will be visually interpreted by their systems and commissions their own artwork; updating to a newer version of macOS will add new emoji to every piece of software on your Mac, provided its interface allows for the use of emoji.

(Not every piece of software will support them, but emoji are so popular that by now, most do.)

The way you bring up the emoji menu can vary from program to program, but most follow the same or roughly the same process.

Your first approach should be to try the shortcut Ctrl + Cmd + space, which in most applications that support emoji will bring up the emoji picker. You can scroll through the entire library if you wish, but there are shortcuts that jump you to the various sections, while the ones you've used most often and/or recently are grouped at the top.

If that doesn't work, try opening the Edit dropdown menu from the top bar and look for a Special Characters option (or, depending on the software and your version of macOS, just Characters, or Emoji & Characters).

In TextEdit, for instance, select Edit > Special Characters (or Cmd + Alt + T) to bring up the Characters pane, then select Emoji from the lefthand menu. Double-click an emoji and it will appear in your TextEdit document, even if you're working in plain-text mode.

As well as TextEdit, one or both of these techniques will work in Safari, Chrome, Opera and Firefox (and the interfaces of most major websites that allow you to enter text), Mail, iTunes, TweetDeck, the Mac App Store and many more stock and third-party Mac applications.

How to use emoji on Mac: iTunes

Touch Bar support for emoji

Those who are lucky enough to own one of the newer MacBook Pro models with a Touch Bar will find it particularly easy to access emoji characters.

The Touch Bar is of course dynamically context-sensitive, but in most text-entry situations it will offer at the very least a button that activates the emoji library; tap this and the entire bar will change into a swipable bar of emoji you can enter easily.

How to use emoji on Mac: Touch Bar

As above, you can jump straight to the section you're looking for: recently used, food, faces, nature and so on.

At other times (assuming you've got predictive text activated) the Touch Bar will offer emoji as suggestions, just as the QuickType keyboard on iOS offers the emoji for happy after you type the word.

How to use emoji on Mac: Touch Bar

Variation between operating systems

In the normal course of events this won't be something you'll to worry about, but it's worth remembering that while the emoji unicode system is universal, the way emoji look is not. And while the various companies generally stick closely to the accepted interpretation of 'smiley face', for example, there are a few trivial, and one potentially non-trivial, cases where the differences are more pronounced.

The gun emoji

The potentially serious one first. Apple, for reasons officially known only to itself (unofficially the reasons are believed to be political), decided some time ago to stop rendering the gun emoji as an actual, real-life, bullet-shooting gun, and to render it as a water pistol instead.

How to use emoji on Mac: Water pistol

If you are continually shocked, as this writer is, by the prevalence of gun violence in Apple's home country, and the lack of legislative response (the two things this decision is felt to be a protest against), then you may sympathise with the move. But it causes complications, because the other OS makers still render it as a, well, gun.

And so the lighthearted message you tapped out in Messages challenging your friend to a water fight on a hot summer's day may become, should that friend happen to be using a Samsung or Google phone, rather more sinister - even threatening.

The (obviously staged) conversation below is on mobile, but the same will play out if you use Messages on your Mac.

How to use emoji on Mac: Water pistol

The Samsung factor

This is far less worrisome, but nearly all of the other noticeable differences between emoji sets can be traced to Samsung being a bit, well, contrary.

As Alex Hern on the Guardian has pointed out, Samsung does a yellow flag when everyone else does it red, a blue ledger when everyone else goes for yellow, a pair of crackers instead of the single cookie that everyone else offers, a more religiously specific set of prayer beads, a more stationary basketball player, and goodness knows what else.