September 21, 2007

The prehistory of emoticons

There's been a fair amount of press coverage this week for the 25th anniversary of a momentous event in the history of online communication. On September 19, 1982 at 11:44 a.m., Scott Fahlman posted this electronic message to a computer science bulletin board at his home institution, Carnegie Mellon University:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

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


Yes, it's the first smiley face (together with a frowny face), now classified as an emoticon. The message was long considered lost, until it was recovered from backup tapes five years ago. At the time of the recovery, ZDNet UK reported that "the date 19 September, 1982, is now likely to join the lexicon of other significant dates in the information revolution." And sure enough, the fanfare for the 25th anniversary has been ample. Despite the significance of Fahlman's world-changing combination of three punctuation marks, there were actually a few predecessors in earlier decades, proto-emoticons if you will.

First of all, Fahlman should properly be credited for devising the earliest known ASCII smiley, since in the 1970s users of the PLATO message board (among the first of its kind) concocted a whole range of smileys by overstriking characters. But emoticon-like symbols also turned up from time to time before the age of online communication. Urban legend debunker Barbara Mikkelson of recently found just such a forerunner in the May 1967 issue of Reader's Digest:

Many people write letters with strong expression in them, but my Aunt Ev is the only person I know who can write a facial expression. Aunt Ev's expression is a symbol that looks like this: —) It represents her tongue stuck in her cheek. Here's the way she used it in her last letter: "Your Cousin Vernie is a natural blonde again —) Will Wamsley is the new superintendent over at the factory. Marge Pinkleman says they tried to get her husband to take the job —) but he told them he couldn't accept less that $12,000 a year —)  "
(Reader's Digest, May 1967, p. 160, citing Ralph Reppert of Baltimore's Sunday Sun)

"Granted, the 'tongue stuck in cheek' glyph is a bit different than the smiley face in that it is meant to be read square on; that is, looked at directly," Mikkelson writes. "However, lack of head tilt requirement or not, it is indeed an emoticon in the sense that keyboard symbols were used to create a representation of the sender's face for the purpose of conveying a better sense of how she meant her words to be taken." (Wikipedia reports the claim that a similar tongue-in-cheek symbol was used in April 1979 by Kevin MacKenzie on MsgGroup, an early bulletin board.)

But if we're going to extend the definition of emoticon to any expressive use of typographical symbols "to create a representation of the sender's face," then Ralph Reppert's Aunt Ev is hardly the only pre-computer precursor. As previously noted here (and, indeed, on Scott Fahlman's own site), Vladimir Nabokov made the following comment in an interview with Alden Whitman of the New York Times in April 1969:

Q: How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?
Nabokov: 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.

A "supine round bracket" would look something like this: . Like Aunt Ev's tongue-in-cheek symbol, it's meant to be viewed directly and not in the sideways orientation of modern emoticons. Unfortunately, the "supine round bracket" doesn't match any symbol in standard typography, at least without manipulation. (Now there's a Unicode character that fits the bill, U+23DD or 'bottom parenthesis,' though it's not supported in all fonts. [John Wells emails to point out that the more appropriate symbol is U+2323 'smile,' which goes along with U+2322 'frown.'])

As it happens, Ambrose Bierce had pretty much the same idea way back in 1887, and unlike Nabokov he actually put it on the printed page instead of just talking about it. In an essay entitled "For Brevity and Clarity," Bierce proposes a number of reforms for the English language in his usual sardonic style. Here's the relevant passage as it appears in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. XI: Antepenultimata (1912), pp. 386-7, courtesy of Google Books:

Before seeing the Google Books page image, I had thought that Bierce's suggested punctuation looked like this: \___/. That's how it appears in a footnote to Andrew Graham's online essay, "Forked Tongue: The Language of Serpent in the Enlarged Devil's Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce," as well as the Wikipedia entry on emoticons. It's interesting to discover that the parenthesis-as-smile representation actually goes back 120 years. (In Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study, Donald T. Blume dates this essay to September 25, 1887, but the version published in the 1912 collection may have been subsequently revised.)

So as we celebrate Fahlman's baptismal smiley, let's also pay homage to Bierce's "snigger point or note of cachinnation." (The OED defines cachinnation as "loud or immoderate laughter" — for the kids that would translate to LOL or perhaps ROTFLMAO.) Nestled in an obscure corner of Bierce's collected works, the snigger point probably had no lasting impact on future typographical innovations, but it's still noteworthy that his ideas would be revisited independently in coming decades. Bierce's cynical deployment of the snigger point also prefigures various proposals for sarcasm marks (previously discussed here). Then again, this call for sarcastic punctuation was itself couched in sarcasm — as Donald Blume explains, Bierce was snidely recommending the snigger point to writers he disapproved of. What do you suppose a finely tuned wit like Bierce would make of the current efflorescence of less-than-clever emoticons? :-(

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at September 21, 2007 12:00 AM