In defence of the smiley

It is time to give the emoticon the praise it deserves
October 23, 2012

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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