The Oldest Emoticon

Emoticons are the little typographical things which demonstrate if we are happy, sad, etc. online. Things like :) or <3 or even the occasional d-_-b.

In 1982, Scott E. Fahlman, now a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, coined the first emoticon — at least, officially. In a message to an online bulletin board used by the computer science department (students included) at the same school, Fahlman wrote the following:

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 :-(

The proposal was serious, aimed as a cure for a specific ill. As Fahlman recounts, “[t]he problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.”

But while Fahlman is the father of the emoticon, it may predate him — and, for that matter, predate the Emancipation Proclamation, given almost 120 years before the Fahlman edict.   That honor may go to the New York Times which, in 1862, published a transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches — replete with an oddly-placed semicolon after the word “laughter” and before a closing parenthesis.  The snippit can be seen below — pay specific attention to the fifth line from the bottom, toward the right side of the column.

In 2009, Times journalist Jennifer 8. Lee revisited the above column, and concluded that the errant semicolon may, in fact, be intended to emphasize the word “laughter,” much like an emoticon would. It is unlikely to be a classic, modern-day typographical error, as it was published before automatic typesetting machines existed. The typesetter needed to specifically grab the semicolon, set it in place, then grab the end parenthesis, etc. The decision to use both is, most likely, intentional. However, the usage of the semicolon may just be an odd grammatical choice, signifying a pause of sorts — and not a wink.

Unfortunately, the typesetter was no longer available for comment.

Bonus fact: It is quite likely that the history of emoticons is longer than twenty or so years. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the symbol


has been used to mean “the dog’s bollocks.” Per the OED (via this article), the symbol is “a colon followed by a dash, regarded as forming a shape resembling the male sexual organs” and was first in use in 1949. “The dog’s bollocks” means “the very best, the acme of excellence.”

From the Archives: And, the 27th Letter of the Alphabet: The history of the ampersand.

Related: A “quick study” cheat sheet/pamphlet of common emoticons and texting acronyms. $4.95 — and about 20x bigger than your cellphone. Five stars on two reviews, and certainly a great gift for someone in your family, IMO.

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