Emoticons: debased way to indicate tone, or sidesplitting shorthand? And who came up with the idea?
1. ‘Read it sideways’
This week the original emoticon :-) celebrates its 30th birthday. At 11.44am on September 19 1982, Scott Fahlman, a US computer scientist, sent a message on an online bulletin board: “I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways.” Fahlman’s three keystrokes spread across fledgling computer networks, and within months smiley faces had become global.
2. Just a typo?
The New York Times published an article in 2009 debating whether it was the first newspaper to publish an emoticon after Proquest, a digital archive company, found a winking smiley face ;) embedded in the transcript of an 1862 speech by Abraham Lincoln. Allan M. Siegal, former NYT standards editor, said he thought the typesetter made a mistake. The paper is also credited as the first to use an emoticon in a headline: last year, a smiley-face replaced the word “happy” atop an article on the emotional patterns of Twitter users.
3. ‘For Brevity and Clarity’
In 1887 Ambrose Bierce, the US journalist, satirist and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, wrote an essay entitled “For Brevity and Clarity”, in which he recommended ways to modify punctuation to better signify tone. He suggested a single bracket flipped horizontally for sarcastic smiles, “to be applauded, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence”.
4. Smiley people
In 1881, the satirical US magazine Puck published what we would now call emoticons using hand-set type. “We wish it to be distinctly understood that the letterpress department of this paper is not going to be trampled on by any tyrannical crowd of artists,” they stated defiantly.
5. A linguist defects
Readers of Vladimir Nabokov are familiar with his virtuosity in the English language. The novelist and lepidopterist, who switched to writing in English after publishing his first nine books in Russian, was scathing about writers who didn’t use English properly: those “frauds, brutes, clowns, quacks and dunces”, he once wrote. Surprisingly, then, when asked in 1969 how he ranked himself among great authors, he replied: “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.”