The Emoticon Is Thirty! But Where Did It Come From? [Geek History]
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where did emoticons originateIn 2012, the emoticon as we know it turned thirty years old. A lot of us take it for granted that we can convey emotion through text using constructs like :) and :( and O_O, but there was a time when using one of these faces would be met with a confused frown and ridicule. How did such a prominent feature of modern day communication even come about?

Believe it or not, even though emoticons as we know them today are thirty years old, they have a long history before the invention of the computer. Some say that emoticons were used on paper up to 150 years ago. That’s a lot of time to cover, but join me as I look at that span and trace the birth of our beloved :-).

The Prehistory of Emoticons

where did emoticons originate

When we look back in history to pinpoint the first time someone ever created a smiley-face with English characters, a lot of people will point to Abraham Lincoln. Yes, the same Lincoln that became the 16th President of the United States and emancipated the slaves. Take a look at his speech above and you’ll notice a stray ;) face. Some say it’s an emoticon; others just a typo.

In 1881, a United States magazine called Puck published a number of typographical emotion points that were meant to convey emotion through text. These points were a far cry from what we know today, but they had the same intentions. For example, consider the “snigger point,” which is written as \___/! and is meant to represent smiling lips.

how emoticons work

But if we step back even farther back in time, we’d see that there were already a good number of punctuation points meant to convey emotion. The exclamation point, for instance, can convey anger or excitement; the question mark, confusion; the percontation point could convey sasrcasm or irony.

But punctuation points aren’t emoticons. Emoticons are typographical representations of actual facial expressions. Up until now, everything was just building towards the emoticons of modern lingo.

The History of Our Emoticons

In 1982, professor Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University explicitly proposed two unique typographical facial expressions that were to be used intentionally for emotion: :-) and :-(. Take a look below to see the actual transcript of this proposal:

how emoticons work

Luckily for the not-yet-prevalent Internet, these smiley faces exploded in popularity and began to be used on a widespread basis. From there, human creativity was the only limit when it came to altering these faces into other emotions. When you’re joking? :-P. When you’re being sly? ;-). When you’re laughing? :-D.

The draw of emoticons was that they could be used anywhere that regular text could be used. Emails, instant messages, chatrooms, webpages–if you could type, you could convey emotion. And while it stayed like that for a few decades, it didn’t end there.

The Evolution of Emoticons Beyond Text

Enter the world of graphical and animated emoticons. Message boards and forums ran away with the whole emoticons fad and began to replace text faces with images. Even some instant messengers, like Skype, ran with the idea and started making emoticons for things that weren’t even emotion-related!

how emoticons work

Nowadays, emoticons support is almost necessary for anything social. Human interaction is predicated on facial cues and expressions, which means that text needs to have emoticons in order to set the tone of a statement or question. That’s why big social brands like Facebook implement emoticons support.

where did emoticons originate

And for those times where you need super awesome emoticons, there’re always Emojicon Make Your Plaintext Emoticons Snazzy Using Emojicons Make Your Plaintext Emoticons Snazzy Using Emojicons Whether our IM client or SMS interface converts them to graphical smilies or not, every single one of us has typed out an emoticon before. There's so much more possibility when it comes to textually... Read More .

So there you have it: the humble beginnings of what has now become a global phenomenon in text-based communication. It’s hard to imagine where we would be if professor Scott Fahlman had never made his proposal; it’s equally hard to imagine where we’re going to go from here. Will emoticons be phased out? Will they evolve into some other form? What do you think?

Image Credit: Smiley Face Via Shutterstock, Punctuations Via

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  1. Crystal
    January 29, 2018 at 3:00 am

    Hello from 2018 ??

    • Crystal
      January 29, 2018 at 3:02 am

      I guess this website isn’t emoji friendly ? Haha

  2. Anonymous
    December 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm


  3. Alex Slutsky
    December 16, 2012 at 8:45 am


  4. Junil Maharjan
    December 16, 2012 at 5:11 am

    Wow. absolutely interesting. :)

  5. Raj Bhag
    December 15, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Oh my! That was an interesting read! Informative.
    Kudos to you guys xD

  6. poch
    December 15, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    In 1988, someone asked me to make poster copies of the ones we're using now. I didn't even know it existed on PCs because I stopped using a PC back then.

  7. Mac Witty
    December 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    i do not think emoticons will be phased out. But I do wish there was some kind of restrictions - not more than X emoticons on/Y words. Some people do misuse them

  8. Michael Gershman
    December 15, 2012 at 1:40 am

    You do know that President Lincoln didn't type and publish his own speech. A newspaper reporter transcribed the speech by hand and inserted the commentary. The publisher then had the type set for the printing press.

  9. Gary Mundy
    December 15, 2012 at 12:40 am


  10. Josh Barrett
    December 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm


  11. Paul Girardin
    December 14, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Nice - Thanks for sharing