Who Invented Emoticons and Emoji?

Emoji keyboard
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Chances are you use them on a regular basis. In a way, they've become an intrinsic part of electronic communication. But do you know how Emoticons originated and what led to their widespread popularity?

What Are Emoticons?

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An emoticon is a digital icon that conveys a human expression. It is inserted from a menu of visual expressions or created by using a sequence of keyboard symbols.

Emoticons represent how a writer or texter is feeling and help provide better context to what a person writes. For example, if something you wrote was meant as a joke and you want to make that clear, you could add a laughing face emoticon to your text.

Another example would be using an emoticon of a kissing face to express the fact that you like someone without having to write, "I like you." The classic emoticon that most people have seen is the little smiley happy face, that emoticon can be inserted or created with keyboard strokes with ":‐)".

Scott Fahlman - Father of the Smiley Face

Man holding a really happy emoticon face in front of his face
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Professor Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, used the first digital emoticon on the morning of the of September 19th, 1982. And it was a smiley face :-).

Fahlman posted it on a Carnegie Mellon computer bulletin board and he added a note that suggested students use the emoticon to indicate which of their posts were intended as jokes or were not serious. Below is a copy of the original posting [slightly edited] on the Carnegie Mellon bulletin board source:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman 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 :-(

On his website, Scott Fahlman describes his motivation for the creation of the first emoticon:

This problem caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously.
After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone.
Various “joke markers” were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence :-) would be an elegant solution – one that could be handled by the ASCII-based computer terminals of the day. So I suggested that.
In the same post, I also suggested the use of :-( to indicate that a message was meant to be taken seriously, though that symbol quickly evolved into a marker for displeasure, frustration, or anger.

Keyboard Stroke Shortcuts for Emoticons

Smartphone with emoticon smile face
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Today, many applications will include a menu of emoticons that can be automatically inserted. However, some applications do not have this feature. 

So here are a few of the common emoticons and the keyboard strokes for making them. The ones below should work with Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Both applications offer an emoticon menu.

  • :) is a smile
  • ;) is a wink
  • :P is a tease or sticking your tongue out
  • :O is surprised or a gasp
  • :( is unhappy
  • :'( is really sad or crying
  • :D is a big smile
  • :| is a flat expression for I feel nothing
  • :X is for my lips are sealed
  • O:) is for a happy face with a halo, meaning I'm extra good and happy

What's the Difference Between an Emoticon and an Emoji?

Guess the Emoji game interface

Guess the Emoji

Emoticon and Emoji are almost the same. Emoji is a Japanese word that translates in English as "e" for "picture" and "moji" for "character." Emoji were first used as a set of emoticons that are programmed into a cell phone. They were provided by Japanese mobile companies as a bonus for their customers. You do not have to use several keyboard strokes to make an emoji since a standardized set of emoji is provided as a menu choice.

According to the Lure of Language blog:

"Emojis were first invented by Shigetaka Kurita in the late nineties as a project for Docomo, the predominant mobile phone operator in Japan. Kurita created a complete set of 176 characters different from traditional emoticons that use standard keyboard characters (like Scott Fahlman’s “smiley”), each emoji was designed on a 12×12 pixel grid. In 2010, emojis were encoded in the Unicode Standard allowing them to have widespread use in new computer software and digital technology outside of Japan."

A New Way to Communicate

The happy face has been around seemingly forever. But the iconic symbol has experienced revolutionary resurgence thanks to web connected devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented Emoticons and Emoji?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/emoticons-and-emoji-1991412. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). Who Invented Emoticons and Emoji? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emoticons-and-emoji-1991412 Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented Emoticons and Emoji?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emoticons-and-emoji-1991412 (accessed March 28, 2023).