It is one of the most recognisable symbols in the world, a universal form of expression that transcends language. Type :-) into a text and it will be understood in just about any country on Earth.
The origins of :-) can be traced back to September 19, 1982 as it was on that date that a first recorded digital example of it was sent by Scott E. Fahlman of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. His message on the University’s Bulletin Board System reads thus:
19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman
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
Fahlman’s idea caught on and has been developed to incorporate more than just a smiley or an unhappy face: when :- ) does not do happiness justice, there’s always :- )) or :- D . You can even, if you’re qB- (, be sad whilst wearing shades and a baseball cap.
Emoticons as a form of expression go back much further than Fahlman’s smiley: in the mid-19th century they were being used in a crude form in Morse code and a few decades later in US satirical magazine Puck (see below).
The digital age has brought with it a proliferation of expressions and styles. Facebook chat is full of them, while the Japanese tend to use ones that don’t require the tilting of the head (>_<).
The luxury of different characters has allowed the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans for example to come up with more elaborate emoticons.
To the untrained eye, some emoticons can be incomprehensible, presenting those who are in the know with a kind of special code to be used between themselves. For example, show the words OTL to a emoticonically-challenged person and he/she will just see three capital letters. To the emoticon pro however the ‘O’ is a head, the ‘T’ a torso and arms and the ‘L’ signifies kneeling legs. OTL therefore means a person bowing or kneeling, it represents failure, disappointment or despair.
Old-school language purists sometimes scoff at the emoticon, dismissing it as a lazy excuse for not expressing oneself in real language: why not just say ‘I’m so glad you’re coming’ rather than ‘ You’re coming :-) ‘. But that argument tramples on the biggest benefit of emoticons, the fact that they explode language barriers. Now they are automatic, your computer makes them for you; type in <3 and you end up with a big pulsating heart that lets someone know you love them, whether you speak the same language or not.
The digital emoticon is 29 years old and has already come a long way. Perhaps, in another 29 years, people from different countries and different cultures will all be communicating in one language: the language of :-).