In defence of the smiley

Prospect Magazine

In defence of the smiley


It is time to give the emoticon the praise it deserves

30 years after it was invented, the smiley still serves a valuable purpose

:-) and the world :-) s with you. This was the discovery made 30 years ago this autumn by Scott Fahlman, a professor in the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon University in the US, when he proposed that humorous posts on his departmental message board be marked with a sideways smiley face to make clear that they were intended as jokes.

He has been credited with inventing the emoticon. Now, the blessed things are everywhere. The computer I’m typing this on, indeed, had to have its autocorrect nobbled to prevent it automatically turning the opening three characters of my article into a yellow smiley face.

I mention this because the other day I was asked onto the radio to talk about emoticons to mark their 30th birthday. In the course of that discussion—a rather brief discussion, I should say, and a confusing one because when nervous on live radio I will tend to yelp odd words like “disambiguate” and make myself sound like a Dalek semiotician—I said that emoticons had spread like knotweed and the best way to use them was “sparingly.”

This caused me, afterwards, to fall into an argument online with a grumpy stranger who complained the discussion was “legitimising the lazily dismissive and prescriptive language mavens of Radio 4. For shame!”

“Why use emoticons sparingly?” he asked. “Why liken them to weeds? What’s the basis for evaluating them negatively?” He added: “;o)”.

Now, I would dispute the notion that to take a view on a question of style is the same as being “prescriptive”—the linguist’s equivalent of calling someone a rotten egg. If the comma splice—“I like linguistics, it is my favourite subject”—became a standard usage I wouldn’t insist it was incorrect, but I reserve the right to find it damn ugly. Likewise, any email or tweet that feels the need to signal a wry or facetious remark with a ;-) makes my heart sink. It’s a redundancy, a clumsiness—the equivalent of the office bore booming with laughter at his own jokes.

But let’s take my correspondent’s point on board. Why shouldn’t we speak in praise of emoticons? They have some unique virtues. For a start, they introduce a pictorial element into the written language: something western languages have not had since the days of illuminated manuscripts. That is pleasing. Users of kanji or, ancestrally, hieroglyphics are spoilt in this regard; we have been scanted.

Also, they do something rather interesting: like the punctuation marks they are made of, they add a shade of meaning, feeling or tone to the text in which they occur rather than carrying a primary payload of meaning in and of themselves. That’s not an absolute distinction, but I think it holds. And though, as I say, it’s rather a bland primary shade that :-) or ;-) add to the text they gloss, the more opaque variants bring something more interesting to the party. I especially like o_O, which seems to me to resemble one of Paddington Bear’s hard stares.

Finally, though the smiley has by now been defamiliarised by mass use and in most circumstances is about as fresh and unexpected as a “LOL,” there was real wit in its conception. There continues to be wit. The emoticon is a tight little form—a haiku where, say, an ASCII drawing might be seen as a sonnet—and is used with some inventiveness. Launched though they were in a spirit of pragmatism and formalised into unofficial smiley dictionaries scattered across the web, emoticons have now been co-opted by surrealists. They are punctuational actes gratuits.

“d8=”, marking the everyday observation that “your pet beaver is wearing goggles and a hard hat,” for instance, strikes me as funny. Likewise “%\v” for Picasso. Likewise—for which I am indebted to Betfair Poker’s almost entirely poker-free Twitter account—“>-ii-< iiii”, which apparently signifies: “Go fetch mother, a giant crab is attacking the penguins.” I pass over the comma splice in that sentence without comment, by the way—though it occurs to me that an emoticon for the face I make when I come across a comma splice might also be helpful. :-*, or :-[, or :-I, possibly. The precise shade of emotion depends on the font.

Will emoticons last? Thirty years is not bad going. I expect they will. Among other things, there are only so many different ways to make a human face out of punctuation marks. That gives them a longevity that other internet usages (nonstandard spellings, for instance) might not be expected to have. Leetspeak—or 133t, as users of the language might spell it—dates fast, and tends to be abandoned by its initial users once their mums start cottoning on.

The chances of emoticons making their way into mainstream discourse—job applications, medical notes, last wills and testaments—are slim, however. They evolved, after all, as tools of compression: shortcuts for conveying tone on message board postings. They have effloresced most spectacularly in the abbreviated spaces of the text message and the tweet. As such they carry a secondary, or penumbral, meaning. As well as indicating a cheery demeanour, the presence of :-) in a message also has a so-called phatic function: it marks the communication as having a certain intimacy, crispness and informality. It tells you, in other words, that it’s the sort of message that contains a smiley.

As long as we need such messages, we will need smileys. If you don’t like them, just remember: :-( and you :-( alone.

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  1. October 25, 2012


    At the risk of adding “brain-meltingly boring” to the “grumpy stranger” epithet:

    Linguistic prescriptivism ONLY consists of the powerful (be it the small-c conservative elite or whoever) expressing distaste at linguistic change. What else can “correct” mean?

    To the “virtues” you have identified, I would add that emoticons do more than you credit them for. Like all linguistic variants, they also carry social information over and above their referential content. (Why has David Cameron gone from saying Britain to Bri’ain? Not on account of laziness.)

  2. October 27, 2012

    Ted Reynolds

    When something I write coukld be taken as an insult, a mock, a heresy, or an invitation to pistols at dawn , I am glad to have an easy graphic at hand to make clear that I’m “just kidding”. So I add my (:-)> . . . (I have a beard.)

  3. October 27, 2012


    For an informative addendum, Google “assicons.”

  4. October 29, 2012


    The important thing to remember is that offline speech is made of words, tone, and body language, whereas online speech is made of just words.

    This isn’t a problem in something like a novel or a newspaper article, because the author can simply add them to the description as needed:
    “It’s perfectly safe”, he stated calmly
    “It’s perfectly safe”, he said, visibly shaking.
    “It’s perfectly safe”, he replied with a mischievous grin.

    When you’re simply talking in an online chat, however, it’s a lot harder. While, yes, most IM and chat programs do have a /me command so you can RP any of the above, excessive use of this is generally frowned on in places that aren’t intended to be RP chats, because you you end up with text where half of it looks like a story and the other half looks like chat.

    So what happens when you have an ambiguous sentence, that could be taken seriously or sarcastically, or as mild annoyance vs true offense… or any ambiguity along those lines? You could describe, in detail, how you’d say it or what you’d gesture along with it, or you can just slap an emoticon on the end of it and be done with it. It’s really no different than replacing a period with an exclamation point when you need emphasis they can’t see.

    Last but not least, what happens when you have a wordless response to something. Say… a friend said something you’ll smile at, likely with no verbal response at all. You’re either going to need a “/me smiles.” or a “:)”.

    Emoticons and online abbreviations exist for a reason – so long as you’re using them as intended and not in place of intelligent thought, I really see no problem with them, and they avoid a *lot* of misunderstandings.

  5. October 29, 2012

    Baccar Wozat

    Of course you didn’t mention that the smiley precedes the emoticon and got its start on NYC radio station T-shirts in 1964. (And there was that ad agency guy who made one independently in 1967.)

  6. October 30, 2012


    The thing is, online speech isn’t made of “just words.” It’s made of words in a specific context, and generally that context will allow the reader to understand the intended meaning of a statement or other sequence of words. This is particularly true if the people conversing are familiar with one another. Using the “it’s perfectly safe” example above, I can’t conceive of a single situation in which context wouldn’t make the intended meaning clear, unless the writer was actively trying to deceive the reader, in which case they probably wouldn’t use an emoticon anyway. I have no problem with emoticons, they’re fun, but if they’re needed to convey meaning, that suggests a certain incompatibility between the parties involved in the conversation.

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