When we say “eggplant,” you say…what? “Friday,” probably, if you’ve been anywhere near a computer in the last few years. Instagram spelled it out loud and clear this April when they introduced hashtag capability for every single emoji character except one: that phallic purple fruit.
Their reasoning for excluding the humble aubergine (but not the syringe, toilet, or cleft-bottomed peach)? It’s the only symbol “that [is] typically used to violate Community Guidelines”—those guidelines being the notoriously prudish photo service’s ban on nudity.
That’s because there’s only one thing Solanum melongena is known for online: dick. What began as a goofy stand-in for a phallus in emoji-based sexts has become, over a few short years, the euphemism fueling the major dick-pic phenomenon #EggplantFridays. Though it’s officially banned on Instagram, the eggplant is still going strong on Tumblr, Twitter, and Vine—the connection is so strong that, rather than switch over to the similarly shaped banana emoji, say, or the busting-from-its-husk ear of corn, IG exhibitionists are creatively spinning “eggplant” into new, not-yet-banned hashtags to label their photos. (PSA: The next time you’re trying to ’gram a photo of the hero you just got at the Italian spot, don’t use #EggplantParm. Trust.)
There’s only one thing Solanum melongena is known for online: dick.
A mere seven years ago, if you’d asked anyone to name the most dick-like member of the fruit and vegetable kingdom, you would almost certainly have heard “banana.” Since the 1980s, its use as a sex-ed condom model established the banana as a literal stand-in for the male member, cementing the already strong association. In the Before Emoji era (BE), the only time a dude’s junk got compared to an eggplant was when there was something seriously wrong with it (yes, “eggplant penis” is a real medical term and you do not want to google it). While fruit euphemisms for lady parts abounded—melons, peaches, pineapples—all a guy had to work with was the banana, with its undercurrent of gym-teacher condom fumbling and unadulterated pre-teen embarrassment.
Rarely eaten by Americans unless it’s hidden under layers of fried batter and melted cheese, the eggplant became part of our everyday vocabulary with the introduction of the emoji keyboard. Invented in 1998 by a telecom company to get Japanese teens to buy pagers, emoji began as a perfectly PG system of smiley faces and hand gestures inspired by manga imagery. Inventor Shigetaka Kurita said the system was intended to help cripplingly polite Japanese speakers clarify messages that could be misinterpreted in text alone: “You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head,” he explained. And while there were a few food icons in the original 282-character set—the rice ball, hamburger, slice of cake, and that damn banana—the eggplant just wasn’t important enough to everyday communication to be in the starting lineup.
Over the next few years, competing Japanese services drew up their own systems, each trying to win customers with their own slightly different, “better” set of emoji. In 2008, Apple adopted one of these sets for the first official iPhone emoji keyboard, but still, no eggplant there. It wasn’t until 2010 that the eggplant made its American debut, after the Unicode Consortium—the group that sets the standards for computer coding (they’re the guys Taco Bell petitioned to make the #tacoemoji happen)—drew up a list of official emoji specs. iPhones incorporated the Unicode list into a native keyboard in 2011, and almost immediately, a sext was born.
Corn on the cob is too familiar, too closely associated with teeth. But the eggplant is a vegetal blank slate.
There’s still the question of why the eggplant made the jump to the dark side. Even if we rule out the banana for its grade-school awkwardness, why not the corn cob, the snake, even the Easter Island head? It’s precisely because Americans had no cultural association with eggplants prior to the emoji revolution that it was the perfect euphemism. Corn on the cob is too familiar, too closely associated with teeth; and can you even read the phrase “trouser snake” without hearing it coming from Grampa Simpson? It’s corny as hell. But the eggplant is a vegetal blank slate. How many people have even seen an eggplant—especially the Japanese eggplant, a longer, skinnier variety than the genetically-engineered oddity commonly found in North America—let alone harbor deep personal feelings about them?
Add to that the shape, the color (sure, purple isn’t anatomically perfect, but it’s a lot closer than bright orange or yellow), and the triumphant up-thrusting angle, and the emoji eggplant is the perfect conduit for our dirty thoughts. After lurking in the sexting shadows, #EggplantFriday made its public debut in December of 2014, and lasted a solid six months before being driven back underground.
It’s unclear whether the Japanese father of emoji knows just what his invention has become here in the U.S. In a recent interview, he alluded to the cultural meanings of certain characters, saying, “There are probably things that only Japanese people would understand, or only Americans would understand…It would be great if we could compare, and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.”
A recent study found that emoji usage varies wildly by country, indicating that cultural norms have an impact on the way we communicate, even in pictures (Canadians are big fans of the pile of poop, while Americans lead the league in, you guessed it, eggplant). But while the latest update to the official Unicode standards made a number of suggestions to alter emoji images to make them more universal—for example, the sad, sweaty face is supposed to just be tired, that droplet on his forehead a manga cue that’s lost on an international audience—the eggplant was not mentioned.
After such a meteoric rise, can the eggplant survive its latest blow? Though breastfeeding mothers and mastectomy patients—two other groups whose photos were banned from Instagram for having violated the Community Guidelines—successfully petitioned to #freethenipple, campaigns to #freetheeggplant have so far fallen on deaf ears. But don’t cry for the eggplant. It’s going to take a long time for bros to stop snickering every time they walk through a late-August farmers’ market, or read the menu at a Middle-Eastern joint. And hey, that peach is still up for grabs…