Six things you might not know about emoticons :-)

The first ever emoticon was recorded in September 1982.

But who decided to digitalise the smiley face in the first place? How did emoticons evolve into emojis we use today?

Here are six things you might not know about emoticons.

The emoticon was invented by a computer scientist

Scott Fahlman, programmer and retired professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was the first documented person to use the emoticons :-) and :-( when proposing the sequence of characters to mark when you’re joking (or not joking), as tone can be difficult to distinguish over text.

Prof Fahlman posted the ‘sideways smiley’ onto an online computer science board at the university, and others contributed to the thread. Emoticons then reached world-wide discussion systems such as Usenet - similar to what we would now call an internet forum.

Emoticons and emojis are not the same

An emoticon is a blend of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’, made up of characters from a keyboard, whereas an emoji (a combination of the Japanese ‘e’ for ‘picture’ and ‘moji’ for ‘character’) is small image that represents something.

The first emojis were created by Shigetaka Kurita in Japan in 1999 for mobile phones, in order for users to communicate simple messages quickly and efficiently through icons.

Emojis were eventually incorporated into corporate email and messaging systems all over the world - but Apple has often been credited for popularising emojis globally, as the iPhone introduced their own emoji keyboard and competing phone companies followed suit.

Shigetaka Kurita holding drawings of some original 12x12 pixel emoji designs.

The smiley came first

The iconic yellow smiley face has an interesting story behind it - and it was around long before the emoticon. In 1963, comic artist and graphic designer Harvey Ball was commissioned by an insurance company in Worcester, Massachusetts, to promote their happy image with the phrase "Have a happy day" (later “Have a nice day” - which is still a slogan for smiley t-shirts now).

The design took less than 10 minutes, but it exploded in western pop culture, being referenced in music, film and art.

It even became a symbol of UK rave culture in the 80’s and 90’s - however, the authentic ‘Worcester-made’ smiley by Harvey Ball has signature differences, such as the right eye being larger than the left, and the thickness and angle of the mouth.

But Harvey didn't copyright his design, so missed out on the millions that his design generated throughout the decades :(

Modern-day Hieroglyphics?

You might have heard emojis being compared to Hieroglyphics, but this isn’t entirely accurate.

Hieroglyphs are logograms - characters that represent words or phrases - and emojis are pictograms, which are pictures of the things they represent.

A single Hieroglyph can mean many things depending on the context in which it is written, or what symbols it is paired with - but while these would be understood as a language, emoji combinations are largely subject to interpretation. What do you mean broccoli-broccoli-crying face?

However the ‘rubus priciple’, where a symbol for one word is used to stand in for a word with a similar sound - similar to a system that middle Egyptian also used - can apply to emojis. E.g. the phrase ‘oh dear’ could be written as ‘oh (deer emoji)’, which is perhaps why emojis are confused for modern Hieroglyphics.

Hieroglyphics and their related sounds.

They’re not the same in every language

Did you know different countries recognise different emoticons? Some languages require different characters and have a different keyboard, so it makes sense that the emoticons they ‘spell out’ have some variation.

In Russia, the colon punctuation mark is not used on the Russian keyboard, so ) is enough to show happiness, or ))) for extreme happiness.

Japanese emoticons are called ‘kaomojis’ from ‘kao’ (meaning ‘face’) + moji. Kaomojis use the kanji keyboard and have a larger range of expression in the eyes than the western emoticon - for example, evil eyes go inward (`ω´) and kind eyes go outward (´▽`). Japanese emojis in the 1990s were inspired by kaomojis - so really the evolution was not down to smiley emoticons, but kaomojis!

Other countries utilise accents and characters in their keyboards to create more complex emoticons, e.g. Korean emoticons ㅇㅅㅇ and Brazilian emoticons ò_ó.

If you frequent internet forums, you may have seen a melting pot of emoticons in eastern upright style, but using English language keyboards: e.g. T_T for a crying face.

But their meanings can also differ across cultures. For example, >.< is a cute face in South Korea, but an angry face in Hungary - be careful who you’re sending them to!

*Smiles in Russian*

They might have existed before the digital age

There is some evidence that emoticons are far older than the sideways smiley. While it is debated whether it was deliberate or a typo, the first emoticon in print may have been inserted into a transcript of an 1862 speech by US president Abraham Lincoln.

The transcript featured a parenthesis “(applause and laughter ;)”, and it’s an unresolved argument that the use of a winky face ;) was to signify humour, or was simply a mistake or misinterpretation of a grammatical symbol of that era.

Transcript of president Lincoln's speech - deliberate or a cheeky typo?

Smiley faces have also been documented elsewhere through out history, such as on the signature of Bernard Hebbot - an abbot from 1761 Cistercian cloister (now Czech Republic) - who drew a smiley-like drawing next to his name. Paintings and carvings of the smiley face have been seen on pots as far back as the 1700s.

However, it is widely accepted that Fahlman’s digital sideways smiley is the face that started it all.

Hebbot's signature self-portrait may not be representative of what he actually looked like.
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