Internet celebrates thirty years of emoticons

In 1982 an academic logged onto a university forum and posted a fateful innovation: the smiley. Three decades later, emoticons are everywhere – but they are not always welcome.

On 19 September 1982 Professor Scott Fahlman was reading an online university message board when he was struck by how often the forum’s users misread humour or missed irony. So he posted a light hearted suggestion. ‘I propose,’ wrote Fahlman, ‘the following character sequence for joke markers: :) Read it sideways.’

With this humble suggestion, the emoticon was born. Today text messages and emails are littered with so-called ‘smileys’, used to express everything from nausea to innuendo. To some they are indispensable. Others find them idiotic, infuriating and illiterate.

But though they are generally treated as a phenomenon of the internet age, emoticons have a surprisingly rich history stretching back far beyond 1982. In 1887, for instance, American writer Ambrose Bierce proposed a new type of ‘punctuation’: a sideways bracket suggesting a smile for each ‘jocular or ironical sentence’. In other words, a simplified smiley.

That Bierce described his invention as ‘punctuation’ might seem odd. But in a way he was right. Whereas the meaning and tone of a spoken sentence can be altered by pauses, volume and intonation, a written sentence is simply a set of words. Punctuation is an attempt to counter this problem – as are emoticons.

There have been many previous attempts to deal with these inadequacies in written language. In Medieval Europe, when the idea of punctuation was relatively new, experimental symbols came and went quite frequently. A rhetorical question, for instance, could be signalled by a backward question mark.

In the 19th Century, a French poet came up with a set of new punctuation marks to express different moods: the ‘irony point’, the ‘doubt point’ and even the ‘love point’.

Another innovation was made in 1962 by advertising executive Martin Speckter. His writers had developed a habit of indicating surprised or sarcastic questions with both an exclamation and a question mark; Speckter found that inelegant. His solution: the interrobang (‽), which can still be found in most typefaces today.

Smiley or frowny? :-/

All very interesting, say purists. But if your range of emotions extends beyond :-), :-( and :-|, emoticons are a jarring monstrosity. Language is a beautiful and sophisticated tool that allows us to express infinite ideas in infinite ways. To deface it with these crude little hieroglyphs is a mindless act of vandalism.

Rubbish, respond texters the world over. Smileys are a witty, inventive new way to convey tone and emotion – something that written language has always struggled to do. Just like an adjective or an exclamation mark, they admit, an emoticon can be overused. But deployed sparingly and in the right context, smileys are great :D

You Decide

  1. Are emoticons any use?
  2. Are mobile phones and the internet making written language sloppy?


  1. Design your own punctuation mark or emoticon to express something that is normally conveyed by tone of voice or body language.
  2. Try using punctuation to give this unwieldy sentence a meaning:

    ‘Miranda where Bobby had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.’ It is honestly possible!

Some People Say...


What do you think?

Q & A

If a smiley is just another form of punctuation, does that mean I can use it whenever?
Absolutely not. Never use a smiley in a formal email, a job application, an essay or any official communication.
Why not?
For a start, smileys are not an established form of punctuation, though there are similarities. When writing formally it is important to follow conventions in order to make a good impression. That means you must even be careful with established punctuation marks.
Like what?
Exclamation marks: use them sparingly if at all, and never use more than one at a time. You should also avoid the ellipsis (…), as well as taking general care to punctuate correctly.

Word Watch

When a statement makes implications that are incongruous to its obvious meaning, that statement is using the rhetorical device of ‘irony’. Irony is similar to sarcasm, but not quite the same, since it can contain multiple meanings and ambiguity.
The changes in tone within a sentence. In Indo-European languages like English, speaking in higher notes at the end of a sentence usually indicates a question. In some languages, such as Chinese, intonation can actually change the meaning of the word. A whole 92-character poem has been written in Chinese using only the syllable ‘shi’.
Nowadays often referred to as a font, though experts say that this is incorrect. A typeface is a collection of characters that share design features. Arial, for instance, is rounded and simple; Times New Roman is slightly more fiddly, with small ticks at the end of lines called ‘serifs’.

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