An emoticon is a symbol or combination of symbols used to convey emotional content in written or message form. The word is a portmanteau of the English words emotion (or emote) and icon. In web forums, instant messengers and online games, text emoticons are often automatically replaced with small corresponding images, which came to be called emoticons as well. An example of a well known emoticon is a smiley face :-)


The National Telegraphic Review and Operators Guide in April 1857 documented the use of the number 73 in Morse code to express "love and kisses" (later reduced to the more formal "best regards"). Dodge's Manual in 1908 documented the reintroduction of "love and kisses" as the number 88. Gajadhar and Green comment that both Morse code abbreviations are more succinct than modern abbreviations such as LOL.

Typographical emoticons were published in 1881 by the U.S. satirical magazine Puck. In 1912 Ambrose Bierce proposed "an improvement in punctuation — the snigger point, or note of cachinnation: it is written thus ___/! and presents a smiling mouth. It is to be appended, with the full stop, [or exclamation mark as Bierce's later example used] to every jocular or ironical sentence".

Emoticons had already come into use in sci-fi fandom in the 1940s, although there seems to have been a lapse in cultural continuity between the communities.

An early instance of using text characters to represent a sideways smiling (and frowning) face occurred in an ad for the MGM movie Lili in the New York Herald Tribune, March 10, 1953, page 20, cols. 4-6. (See "Creation of :-) and :-(" section below.)

In 1963 the "smiley face", a yellow button with two black dots representing eyes and an upturned thick curve representing a mouth, was created by freelance artist Harvey Ball. It was realized on order of a large insurance company as part of a campaign to bolster the morale of its employees and soon became a big hit. This smiley presumably inspired many later emoticons; the most basic graphic emoticon that depicts this is in fact a small, yellow, smiley face.

In a New York Times interview in April 1969, Alden Whitman asked writer Vladimir Nabokov: "How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?" Nabokov answered: "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."


Starting around 1976 the people on the PLATO System were using emoticons They had many of the advantages of later character based emoticons because they could be used anywhere that you could type text and new emoticons could be created whenever a user thought a new one up. They also had many of the advantages of later graphical emoticons because they used character overstriking which created graphical images.

Several Internet websites —such as BT's Connected Earth— assert that Kevin Mackenzie proposed -) as a joke-marker in April 1979, on a message board called MsgGroup. The idea was to indicate tongue-in-cheek — the hyphen represented a tongue, not a nose. Others used :-) for tongue-in-cheek, with the colon representing teeth. Also used was -:) to indicate sticking out your tongue, in derision or anger. Although similar to a sideways smiling face, the intended interpretation was different and this does not appear to have inspired the later smileys.

Creation of :-) and :-(

The first person documented to have used the original ASCII emoticons :-) and :-(, with a specific suggestion that they be used to express emotion, was Scott Fahlman; the text of his original proposal, posted to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board on 19 September 1982 (11:44), was thought to have been lost, but was recovered twenty years later by Jeff Baird from old backup tapes.
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


Actually, teletype machine operators, as early as 1973, and probably long before that date, used "emoticons" to express themselves. Teletypes were limited to the keys of a standard typewriter keyboard plus a few special characters. Teletype operators developed a sort of shorthand to communicate among themselves. These shorthand notations became the foundation of "emoticons" as computers began to replace teletypes on university campuses.

Graphical replacement

In web forums, instant messengers and online games, text emoticons are often automatically replaced with small corresponding images, which came to be called "Emoticons." Similarly, in some versions of Microsoft Word, the Auto Correct feature replaces basic smileys such as :-) and :-( with a single smiley-like character. Originally, these image emoticons were fairly simple and replaced only the most straightforward and common character sequences, but over time they became so complex that the more specialized emoticons are often input using a menu or popup windows, sometimes listing hundreds of items. Emoticons have also expanded beyond simple cartoon facial expressions to a variety of still or moving images. Some of these graphical emoticons do not actually represent faces or emotions; for example, an "emoticon" showing a guitar might be used to represent music. Further, some instant messaging software is designed to play a sound upon receiving certain emoticons.

Many applications use text codes, which become replaced with a graphical emoticon. For example, :dance: or (dance) could be replaced with a graphical dancing emoticon.

An August 2004 issue of the Risks Digest (comp.risks on USENET) pointed out a problem with such features which are not under the sender's control:

It's hard to know in advance what character-strings will be parsed into what kind of unintended image. A colleague was discussing his 401(k) plan with his boss, who happens to be female, via instant messaging. He discovered, to his horror, that the boss's instant-messaging client was rendering the "(k)" as a big pair of red smoochy lips.

Many sites use GIF or PNG graphic files, because of their transparency and small file size capabilities. Files can be created using a raster graphics editor. Many emoticon artists design their emoticons pixel by pixel. Some emoticons are made in vector format, such as SVG, and automatically processed using a graphics library. This allows SVG files to be automatically rendered as a GIF or PNG file, which is compatible on all browsers, which SVG is not.

Western style

Traditionally, the emoticon in Western style is written from left to right, the way one reads and writes in most Western cultures. Thus, most commonly, emoticons have the eyes on the left, followed by the nose and mouth. To more easily recognize them, tilt your head toward your left shoulder (or occasionally toward your right shoulder if the "top" of the emoticon is toward the right).

Common examples

The most basic emoticons are relatively consistent in form, but each of them can also be transformed by being rotated (making them tiny ambigrams), with or without hyphen (nose), and so on:

Icon Meaning Icon Meaning Icon Meaning
:) smile, happy :( sad, depressed ;) or ;] wink
:D or XD big grin or laugh :P or =P tongue out, happy, or after a joke :* kiss
:O or =O surprised or shocked :/ uncertain :| waiting, indifferent
:S confused =( sadness, depressed =X speechless
>:(or >=( angry :? confused :'( crying


There are endless possibilities because people are very good at creating and interpreting pictures as faces. See ASCII art.

An equal sign is often used for the eyes in place of the colon, without changing the meaning of the emoticon. In these instances, the hyphen is almost always either omitted or, occasionally, replaced with an 'o' as in =O).In some circles it has become acceptable to omit the hyphen, whether a colon or an equal sign is used for the eyes. In other areas of usage, people prefer the larger, more traditional emoticon :-). In general, similar-looking characters are commonly substituted for one another: for instance, o, O, and 0 can all be used interchangeably, sometimes for subtly different effect. In some cases, one type of character may look better in a certain font and therefore be preferred over another.

Some variants are also more common in certain countries because of reasons like keyboard layouts, for example the smiley =) is common in Scandinavia and Finland where the keys for = and ) are placed right beside each other and both need the use of the shift key. Also, sometimes, the user can replace the brackets used for the mouth with other, similar shapes, such as ] and [ instead of ) and (.

Diacritical marks are sometimes used. An O with an umlaut, Ö, can be seen as an emoticon, as the upright version of :O (meaning that one is surprised).

Posture emoticons

Orz (also seen as _| ̄|o, OTL, Or2, Orz, OTZ, O7Z, Sto, Jto, _no) is a Japanese emoticon representing a kneeling or bowing person, with the "o" being the head, the "r" being the arms and part of the body, and the "z" being part of the body and the legs. This stick figure represents failure and despair. It is also commonly (mis-)used for representing a great admiration for (sometimes with an overtone of sarcasm) someone else's view or action. It was first seen in late 2002. It was first used at the forum on Techside, Japanese personal website. At the "Techside FAQ Forum" (TECHSIDE教えて君BBS(教えてBBS) ), a poster asked about a cable cover, typing "_| ̄|○" to show a cable and its cover. Others commented that it looked like a kneeling person, and the symbol became popular. These comments were soon deleted as they were considered off-topic. However, one of the first corresponding reactions can be found on the thread on , on December 23, 2002, and spawned a subculture in late 2004. Orz is associated sometimes with the phrase "nice guy" — that is, the concept of males being rejected for a date by girls they are pursuing with a phrase like "You're a nice guy," or "I'd like to be your friend."

Though people generally use the pictograph to show that they have failed and/or they are in despair, some users use it to imply being doubled over in laughter. It is not to be read phonetically; the letters are spelled out. Orz should not be confused with m(_ _)m, which means an apology.

Another common posture emoticon is OGC, which depicts a man in the process of masturbation. The emoticon is used to express appreciation or sarcasm toward a sexual topic or image, it became widely used after awareness was raised by a subsequently revised logo for the Office of Government Commerce.

Eastern style

Users from East Asia popularized a style of emoticons that can be understood without tilting one's head to the left. This style arose on ASCII NET of Japan in 1986.

These emoticons are usually found in a format similar to (*_*). The asterisks indicate the eyes, the central character, commonly an underscore, the mouth, and the parentheses, the outline of the face. A large number of different characters can be used to replace the eyes, which usually is where the emoticon derives its emotive aspect (contrasting the Western emoticons' emoting through the mouth). Different emotions can be expressed by changing the character representing the eyes, for example ' T ' can be used to express crying or sadness (T_T). The emphasis on the eyes is reflected in the common usage of emoticons that use only the eyes, e.g. ^^. Looks of embarrassment are either represented by (x_x) or (-_-;). Characters like hyphens or periods can replace the underscore; the period is often used for a smaller, "cuter" mouth or to represent a nose, e.g. (^.^). Alternatively, the mouth/nose can be left out entirely, e.g. (^^). The parentheses also can often be replaced with braces, e.g. {^_^}. Many times, the parentheses are left out completely, e.g. ^^, >.<, o_O, O.O, <.<; A quotation mark ", apostrophe ', or semicolon ; can be added to the emoticon to imply apprehension or embarrassment, in the same way that a sweat drop is used in anime culture. Many other characters can be appended to also indicate arms or hands, e.g. <(^_^)> or (^o^)/ or ⊂(゚ヮ゚)⊃ or (/.) => (^o^/) (peek-a-boo) or <(-.-<) or /(T_T).

Microsoft IME 2002 (Japanese) or later supports the use of both forms of emoticons by enabling Microsoft IME Spoken Language Dictionary. In IME 2007, it was moved to Emoticons dictionary.

Indian Style

Emoticons like /||, meaning namasté, have become popular with Indian internet users.

Western use of East Asian style

English-language anime forums adopted those emoticons that could be used with the standard ASCII characters available on western keyboards. Because of this, they are often called "anime style" emoticons in the English-speaking Internet. They have since seen use in more mainstream venues, including online gaming, instant-messaging, and other non-anime related forums. Emoticons such as <(^.^)>, <(o_o<), which include the parentheses, mouth or nose, and arms (especially those represented by the inequality signs < or >) also are often referred to as "Kirbies" in reference to their likeness to Nintendo's video game character, Kirby. The parentheses are usually dropped when used in the English language context, and the underscore of the mouth may be extended as an intensifier, e.g. ^___^ for very happy.

Mixture of western and East Asian style

Exposure to both western and East Asian style emoticons or emoji through web blogs, instant messaging, and forums featuring a blend of Western and Asian pop culture, has given rise to emoticons that have an upright viewing format. The parentheses are similarly dropped in the English language context and the emoticons only use alphanumeric characters and the most commonly used English punctuation marks. Emoticons such as -O-, -3-, -w-, ' - ', ; - ;, and .V., are used to convey mixed emotions that are more difficult to convey with traditional emoticons. Characters are sometimes added to emoticons to convey a anime or manga-styled sweat drop, for example: ^_^' or >_Ideographic style

The letter (U+56E7) originally meant 'bright', is also used in Chinese community for frowning face. It is also combined with posture emoticon Orz, such as 囧rz. The letter existed in Oracle bone script, but its use as emoticon was documented as early as 2005-1-20.

Other ideographic variant for 囧 include 崮 (king 囧), 莔 (queen 囧), 商 (囧 with hat), 囧興 (turtle), 卣 (Bomberman).

The letter 槑 (U+69D1) originally meant 'plum', is used to represent double of '呆' (dull), or further magnitude of dullness.

2channel style

The Japanese language is usually encoded using double-byte character codes. As a result there is a bigger variety of characters that can be used in emoticons, many of which cannot be reproduced in ASCII. Most kaomoji contain Cyrillic and other foreign letters to create even more complicated expressions analogous to ASCII art's level of complexity. To type such emoticons, the input editor that is used to type Japanese on a user's system is equipped with a dictionary of emoticons, after which the user simply types the Japanese word (or something close to it) that represents the desired emoticon to convert the input into such complicated emoticons. Such expressions are known as Shift JIS art.

Users of 2channel in particular have developed a wide variety of unique emoticons using obscure characters. Some have taken on a life of their own and become characters in their own right, like Mona.

Multimedia variations

A portmanteau of emotion and sound, an emotisound is a brief sound transmitted and played back during the viewing of a message, typically an IM message or e-mail message. The sound is intended to communicate an emotional subtext. Many instant messaging clients automatically trigger sound effects in response to specific emoticons.

Some services, such as MuzIcons, combine emoticons and flash player in a widget.

The Trillian chat application introduced an feature called "emotiblips", in version 3.0 (2004), which allows Trillian users to stream files to their instant message recipients "as the voice and video equivalent of an emoticon".

In 2007 MTV and Paramount Home Entertainment promoted the "emoticlip" as a form of viral marketing for the second season of the show The Hills. The emoticlips were twelve short snippets of dialogue from the show, uploaded to YouTube, which the advertisers hoped would be distributed between web users as a way of expressing feelings in a similar manner to emoticons. The emoticlip concept is credited to the Bradley & Montgomery advertising firm, which hopes they would be widely adopted as "greeting cards that just happen to be selling something"..

In 2008 classic emoticons have been extended to allow users expressing their feelings in on-line environments and create millions of different emoticon sequences via a simple web-interface. The real-time animation tool, called FunIcons further extended the concept by adding range of photo-based characters and defining expressions spaces over a 2D circular domain. Sharing emoticons have also become easier. In addition to email or saving their own animations users may use them on Skype, Yahoo Messenger, MSN, FaceBook and similar social utility applications applications in a manner that replaces their web camera. FunIcon implementations include a Adobe Flash-based web interface, and Java for mobile devices.

Emoticons and intellectual property rights

In 2000 Despair, Inc. obtained a U.S. trademark registration for the "frowny" emoticon :-( when used on "greeting cards, posters and art prints." In 2001, they issued a satirical press release, announcing that they would sue Internet users who typed the frowny; the joke backfired and the company received a storm of protest when its mock release was posted at technology news website Slashdot. They subsequently issued another press release a month later in response to the reaction their claim had generated.

A number of patent applications have been filed on inventions that assist in communicating with emoticons. A few of these have issued as US patents., for example, discloses a method developed in 2001 to send emoticons over a cell phone using a drop down menu. The advantage over the prior art was that the user saved on the number of keystrokes.

In Finland, the emoticons :-), =), =(:) and :(were trademarked in 2006 for use with various products and services.

See also


Further reading

  • Walther, J. B., & D'Addario, K. P. "The impacts of emoticons on message interpretation in computer-mediated communication". Social Science Computer Review 19 323–345.
  • Wolf, Alecia. 2000. "Emotional Expression Online: Gender Differences in Emoticon Use." CyberPsychology & Behavior 3: 827-833.

External links



Japanese emoticons

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