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The History of Emoticons

Kristy-Ann MacPherson on Flickr

Recently I came across an article with an example of an emoticon printed in a newspaper in the late 1800s. For this month’s Off Beat essay, I want to find out if this is really true. Did the Victorians really beat us to one of the more fun and inane aspects of email and computing?

These Off Beat articles are about technology, science, and sometimes computer science, but they're mostly unscripted adventures in online research. They also teach how to define and answer real world questions with online research. They’re also the last or next to last article I write for each issue of the magazine and, therefore, a way to blow off steam and relax.

Plus these Off Beat articles are meant to be fun: there will be detours.

The question I want to answer this month: where do emoticons really come from?

To start, and only if you do not know, emoticons are silly images you can create with the letters, numbers, and characters on your computer keyboard. Here’s Abraham Lincoln:


Turn your head sideways: do you see Abe’s stove pipe hat, the brim, the beard? Very clever, isn’t it? However, most people think emoticons are this:


But you can see, as with Abraham Lincoln, this sort of emoticon is child’s play. There’s lots more fun to be had with the keys on your keyboard. Best of all, there’s no math involved.

Are Emoticons Really an 1800s Invention?

Yes and no.

Ever since technology existed, people have subverted it to their own ends. For example, in 1862, Victor Hugo sent a telegram to his publisher with a single character, ?, to ask how his new book Les Miserables was selling. The publisher, equally clever, sent a single character telegram back, !.

In 1881, the US satirical magazine Puck published these characters to be used in print publications and thus put comedians out of business:

Puck’s Attempt to End Comedy Forever (from Wikipedia)

Presumably the Sumerians did something similar when pressing down a stylus on moist clay to write with cuneiform. It’s human nature. Certainly Mad Magazine did in 1962 with its Typwri-toons. And one of my favorite authors, Ambrose Bierce, came up with an emoticon in 1912.

The most contentious case in question, however, is a newspaper report in the New York Times about a speech given by Abraham Lincoln. The President had a justly deserved reputation for being both serious and cracking people up with witty phrases and jokes. Therefore, the appearance of a printed ;). Here’s the text report of part of Lincoln’s speech:

I believe there is no precedent for my appearing before you on this occasion, [applause] but it is also true that there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and of you, that, upon examination, I have found nothing in the Constitution against. [Renewed applause.]

According to the New York Times in 2009, the arguments for and against this being an emoticon are a tie. Either the printer deliberately added the semi-colon, perhaps to sneak one past their superiors, or we’re silly people from the future applying our standards to what happened in 1862. They didn’t have emoticons.

Except they did, sort of, if you read all the antecedents the Wikipedia article on emoticons has dredged up.

Perhaps most interesting, and to my point about human nature and the urge to play with language and the tools we use to communicate with language, someone also found a Robert Herrick poem from 1648 that uses the same ;) as the 1862 Times article, but in a way that reflects the playful meaning of the text. So maybe Herrick invented emoticons?

The Modern History of Emoticons

Whether or not people in the 1800s invented emoticons, or the Sumerians, or barbarians, the modern history of emoticons grew out of an interesting side effect of technology: typed messages on a computer screen appear neutral and can be difficult to translate emotionally. There is a difference between insulting a person with text only and insulting them followed by a smiley emoticon. The former is like a punch. The latter is like a friendly slap on the back (maybe). Emoticons signal how the author of a message wants us to respond.

Professor Scott Fahlman, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, sent an email to a computer bulletin board at 11:44am on 19 September 1982, a Sunday:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


Fahlman had seen how people told jokes on the university’s bulletin board only to fall flat because people lacked visual cues to know when to laugh. While the good professor did not save his message, and efforts to recover the message from the university computer files failed, someone at Microsoft did manage to retrieve this important historical email message.

And, if you’re interested, on the same Sunday Professor Fahlman presumably sat at home avoiding church and instead writing a helpful email, Alister Walker was born in Botswana and Skepta was born in Tottenham. Skepta became a famous British rapper, Walker a famous squash player.

Some Emoticon Examples, Please

With all due respect, the yellow smiley emoticons and graphic image emoticons called emojis are not real emoticons. You only have to know the magic keystrokes to invoke the graphic. Where’s the challenge? It’s a form of legalized cheating.

Real emoticons are made with a keyboard, fingers, and a vivid imagination. Okay a search engine also is allowed. Here are a few clever examples I found online:

<コ:彡 (a squid)

//0-0\\ (John Lennon)

*<|:-) (Santa Claus)

+<|:-) (the Pope)

@}-;-'--- (a rose)

What Does it All Mean?

Well, if you know your Douglas Adams, the answer is 42.

For everyone else, it means you're done reading this article. You're free to click links below if you want to learn more about emoticons and happily waste more time. Or subscribe to this magazine if you have not already and support great writing for only a dollar a month.

Learn More



12 Things You Didn't Know About Emoticons

Includes an audio interview with Professor Fahlman.

Is than an Emoticon in 1862?

The controversy in all its gory detail.

The First Emoticon?

Robert Herrick invented it first. Seriously.

Emoji IRL: A Q&A with the designer who sees emoticons as works of art

The oldsters discover emojis and get a youngster to explain the phenomenon.

Lists of Emoticons






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