Skip to main content
May 23, 2015

Smile! The amazing history of emoticons and emojis

Many of us use emoticons and emojis every day in our online lives, but have you ever stopped and wondered where these nifty little things got their start?

Emoticons and emojis can be a divisive topic — for every person that loves to use them, there’s someone out there that despises them. But no matter your stance on these expressive little faces, many linguists believe they’re a useful and interesting addition to how we communicate. You see, with the rise of the Internet and smartphones, a new form of communication has joined the ranks of the traditional forms of written and spoken communication, one that more or less incorporates characteristics from each. In this form of communication, which is commonly referred to as computer-mediated communication, we type out our thoughts in a manner similar to written language, but we communicate in a quick, often turn-based, manner that’s similar to real-life conversation. Emoticons (emotion + icon) help to fill a gap that written communication lacks but is prevalent in conversation: nonverbal cues, gestures, and body language. Sure, it’s possible to convey emotions using words, but it’s not always an ideal fit for the high-speed communication that we find online and in texting. So while many people feel that emoticons are a sign of impoverished language, they’re actually a rich innovation that adds a human touch to textual communication and shows how language is constantly adapting to get its job done.

Pigeons, mercury, and an elevator: the birth of the sideways smiley

The use of the digital smiley got its start on September 19, 1982, thanks to one Scott E. Fahlman and the Computer Science community at Carnegie Mellon University, who were having a lively discussion on the department’s online bulletin board. The discussion began with the scientists pondering various consequences of a free-falling elevator, such as whether or not a pigeon would continue flying or a drop of mercury would rise. Naturally, this resulted in a false announcement that one of the department’s elevators had been contaminated with mercury due to recent experiments, a joke that whooshed over many heads. In true online form, the conversation then went off on a tangent discussing numerous ways that jokes could be marked to avoid future confusion.

There were many proposals (you can read the whole conversation here), but Fahlman’s suggestion is the one that eventually caught on. Thus the ASCII smiley as we know it was born:

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


Emoticons are older than you think

Interestingly, people have actually been using emoticons and punctuation to convey expressive meaning in written (or typed) language for quite a long time. For example, in 1881 the US magazine Puck proposed the use of four emoticons, or “typographical art” as they called it, to convey joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment.


Authors have also joined in on the fun. American author Ambrose Bierce, known for his short stories and satirical works, once proposed a way to indicate irony, writing in 1912 that it would be “an improvement in punctuation – the snigger point, or note of cachinnation: it is written thus ‿ and presents a smiling mouth. It is to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence.” Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov commented in an April 1969 interview with the New York Times’ Alden Whitman, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.” There’s even debate surrounding a potential emoticon found in a transcription of one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches from 1862, that reads “(applause and laughter ;)”. Various communities, such as sci-fi fandom, have made use of emoticons throughout history as well. While none of these proto-emoticons ever really caught on, it just goes to show that the idea of using emoticons to add expressiveness to text didn’t suddenly appear along with the Internet.

A picture is worth a thousand words

These days, most of us use emojis rather than emoticons on our smartphones. In what seems like just a few short years, these stylized and colorful images have rapidly been incorporated into daily use, and much like emoticons, are revolutionizing how we communicate. To see for yourself how varied they are check out the entire Microsoft emoji list in all its colourful glory. With emoji taking the expressiveness of emoticons a step further, they can be used to add an extra layer of information to text with a wide range of images that can also stand on their own. In fact, there’s even a version of Moby Dick written entirely in emojis that’s part of the collection at the Library of Congress. But where did emoji come from?

Windows Phone emojis

The first emoji was created by Docomo’s Shigetaka Kurita, and emerged in the late 90s as part of i-mode, the world’s first widespread mobile internet platform. ASCII emoticons and kaomoji (like emoticons, but aren’t sideways) were certainly around by this time, but as we all know, are a bit of a pain to use on a mobile. Drawing inspiration from anime and manga, Kurita came up with 176 designs that he hoped would cover the entire range of human emotion.

It wasn’t until 2010 that emojis would be adopted into Unicode, allowing them to be sent among different devices, platforms, and networks. We now have hundreds of emojis to choose from in order to perfectly complement our messages and, thanks to Windows 10, there are plenty more on the way. What’s more, there are literally dozens of cool emoji apps in the Windows Phone store to help you create even more.

Emoticons and emojis are more than simple images. They often add important value to our tech-based language, letting us express emotions easily and efficiently in a manner that has adapted to fit in with constantly changing means of communication. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments — either with emoticons, or not. 🙂