Emoticons: Where They Come From & Why I Use Them

Anyone who has communicated on a social network or done some texting knows about emoticons, those clever smiley-faced :) and frowny-faced :( symbols. I count myself as a heavy user because I am an emotional and sensitive guy, a writer and an Aquarian, who enjoys adding emotional accent to what otherwise might be a droll and overly serious message. The disadvantage of social networking is the lack of human contact. No voice, no facial cues to give context to a typed comment. Adding a tiny face helps to make written exchanges slightly more friendly and nuanced. And you know when someone lays down a ;) or a :D that they are a certain kind of person. My kind of person.

When you meet someone in person and shake their hand do you otherwise maintain a completely stone-faced expression? No, you smile and at least try to act like it’s a nice thing to meet this person. You want things to get off to a good start.

Emoticons are a little something more. They go the extra mile. The distance of communicating in a text or on Twitter can be a source of frustration at times. It can be hard to tell if a “Thank you” is a routine thing, perhaps even auto generated, or something with real sentiment behind it, “Thank you! :)” And they’re just…some fun. They allow our typed exchanges an element of creativity.

You might think emoticons were invented by clever techies who were mucking about on American Online during the 90s, or the same geniuses who brought us the Sad Keanu Reeves meme. But actually emoticons date back to 1881, when the satirical magazine Puck published four emoticons. Vladimir Nabokov, the esteemed Russian novelist, suggested in a 1969 interview that he wanted to answer a question using a “typographical sign for a smile.”

The first person to suggest use of emoticons in relation to computers, and to suggest the emoticons :-)  and :-(  was Scott Fahlman, who posted a message to the Carnegie Melon computer science message board on September 9, 1982 at exactly 11:44 am (this historic message was saved for posterity from backup tapes 20 years later).

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


It is amusing that Scott, in a nerdy computer science way, refers to the alpha emoticon as a “joke marker” and then hints significant message board energy is being devoted to jokes rather then official department business. The usage of joke markers then spread to ARPNET and Usenet, exposing the wiseass tendencies of the computing pioneers who haunted these early manifestations of the internet.

Interestingly, western emoticons, which require a left head tilt to interpret (:0  shock, :@ angry) , differ from eastern emoticons, which appear level ((>_<)  troubled, (-_-)zzz  sleeping, (+_+) confused). This allows for more complexity (\(^0^)/ excited,  (=^.^=)  cat).  An extensive list of emoticons can be found here.

If you are an occasional emoticon user or a hardcore person I say: I get what you are doing and good for you. :D \m/ If you have never used one before I urge you to give it a shot. It is a tiny way of giving, with a little sprinkling of absurdity, but a way of giving nonetheless.  You’ll be surprised at the positivity which comes back to you. :)

Robb’s Guide to Popular Emoticons:

:)  the classic smiler, good for most occasions

:D the chucky cheese big smile, conveys a bigger happy factor

;)  the winky smile, goes one further than the classic smiler, more playful

:-) the Scott Fahlman original, conveys good will

:(  I feel your pain, friend. But hey, cheer up!

:O  surprise, like totally omg!

:-*  secret telling, no one else on Twitter will hear!

\m/  rock on!

<3  my heart goes out to you.

Please feel free to add your favorite emoticons as well! ;)


By robbskidmore

Robb Skidmore writes upmarket literary fiction. He is the author of “The Pursuit of Cool”, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age novel about love, music, and the 80s, and the novella “The Surfer.” His short stories have appeared in many publications.

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