Monday, March 16, 2015

All Smiles


The New York Times wrote recently of emoticons and emojis, using those two terms more or less interchangeably. But, in fact, they are quite different. An emoticon, a portmanteau word formed from emotion and icon, and pronounced ee-MOTE-uh-con, is a symbol composed of punctuation marks, letters, or numbers, in a text-only document, to indicate an emotional condition. Usually they must be read sideways. This is an emoticon indicating happiness :-).  Others may indicate unhappiness :-( or alarm :-o or humor ;-).

The person most often credited as the first to use emoticons in this sense is a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. 

Earlier prototypes, however, can be found.  The American humor magazine Puck published these examples created by a type-setter in 1881:

Some people think they have found an even earlier example in a New York Times transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. What might be an emoticon representing amusement appears in the fourth line, after “applause and laughter.” Others insist this is merely a typographical error.

A kind of shorthand emoticon was designed in ten minutes in 1963 by an artist named Harvey Ball as a morale-building device for employees of the State Mutual Life Insurance Company. Ball was paid $45 for inventing the “smiley face” that is now ubiquitous.

An emoji, pronounced ee-MO-jee, is a Japanese word that means “picture character.” It is a more elaborate design that can represent any idea, object, or cultural meme. The first emoji was designed around 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese communications company. Since then, many different organizations have designed their own emojis for use in communications. Here are samples representing a dancer, from Apple, Google, and Twitter:

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is working on an emoji to represent him and his work; so far it’s just a big amorphous blob. 

       If I were asked to vote upon
       My favorite emoticon,
       I’m sure that I would think most highly
       Of a face that’s slyly smiley.

       Some days, though, are not so nice,
       When smiley faces won’t suffice,
       Grinning like some elf or brownie:
       Then I need a face that’s frowny.

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