The Rise of the Emoticons

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/

Image courtesy of nongpimmy/

Although they sound as threatening as the antagonistic Decepticons of the popular Transformer Series, emoticons (commonly known as “smiley faces”), are rather benign, friendly, and at times, very helpful. Symbols such as :) or :/ or :D and >:( are growing more prevalent in our texts, emails, and handwritten notes, and are becoming a widely accepted form of communication.

Show me how you feel

Compared to face-to-face communication, the written word suffers from lack of non-visual cues such as emotions, gestures, and intonations of voice. Take for example if you read I am going to the dentist today in a text message or email from your friend, you may not get a clear idea of how he or she feels about this visit. Enter the emoticon. A portmanteau of the words “emotion” and “icon,” emoticons fill in when a facial expression or body language would have communicated volumes. So now you can see the difference of I am going to the dentist today :(  (your friend is having misgivings about visiting the dentist) versus I am going to the dentist today :)  (maybe your friend actually likes visiting the dentist). Thus, emoticons can be powerful additions in conveying messages.

Emoticons are new, right?

It is interesting to note that although they are used frequently in modern communication technology, the concept of emoticons, as we know them, is quite old. Puck, a U.S. satirical magazine, published these four emoticons way back in 1881:

Emoticons from the 1881 magazine, Puck

Emoticons from the 1881 magazine, Puck

A computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University, Scott Fahlman, is credited as one of the first people to use the emoticons :-) and :-( for the specific use in expressing emotion in 1982.

Emoticons East and West

Global languages are diverse and emoticons as expressions for those languages are no exception. They can vary from culture to culture and country to country. While Westerners might typically use a sideways display such as :0 to show surprise, Japanese style displays O.O for the same emotion. Japan, China, and Korea each offer a wide variety of emoticons.

Emoticons versus Emoji

As with any human form of communication, emoticons became increasingly elaborate. For example, an upset face with hands raised in the air is denoted in short code as (“)(-_-)(“). These long sequences eventually led to the creation of emoji. Emoji are images that are developed as Unicode, so they can be read across different platforms and programs (such as computer to cell phone to tablet).

Emoticons as classics?

If you think emoticons are only for fun, consider the fact that Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick was recently translated entirely into emoji. Initiated as a Kickstarter project by Fred Beneson, and titled Emoji Dick, it was inducted as the first book written in emoji into the archives of the Library of Congress.

So whether you feel :D , >:( , or :*) about emoticons, these pictorial representations allow for greater expression when getting your message across. For more lists of emoticons and emoji, check out these sites:


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype


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