Definition and Examples of Emoticons

Alphabet inside of men's heads face to face
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Definition:  An ASCII character used in online writing to indicate a writer's mood or attitude.

In recent years, conventional emoticons have been largely superseded by emoji, pictographs that have been incorporated into Unicode for use in texting and email.

Etymology: From emot(ion) + icon

Examples and Observations

  • :-( (sadness)
  • </3 (a broken heart)
  • :@ (anger)
  • >:O (surprise)
  • "Emoticons, the smiling, winking and frowning faces that inhabit the computer keyboard, have not only hung around long past their youth faddishness of the 1990s, but they have grown up. Twenty-five years after they were invented as a form of computer-geek shorthand, emoticons--an open-source form of pop art that has evolved into a quasi-accepted form of punctuation--are now ubiquitous. . . .

    "There was a time, of course, that emoticons seemed intrinsically youthful. Just as children shared the special ability to see Big Bird’s magical friend Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street--a character who was long supposed to be invisible to adults--they seemed to easily recognize that the characters 3:-o represented a cow, or that @>--> -- symbolized a rose or that ~(_8^(I) stood for Homer Simpson.

    "But after 25 years of use, emoticons have started to jump off the page and into our spoken language. Even grown men on Wall Street, for example, will weave the term 'QQ' (referring to an emoticon that symbolizes two eyes crying) into conversation as a sarcastic way of saying 'boo hoo.' . . .

    "Though we think of emoticons, or 'smileys,' as an Internet-era phenomenon, their earliest ancestors were created on typewriters. In 1912, the writer Ambrose Bierce proposed a new punctuation device called a 'snigger point,' a smiling face represented by \__/!, to connote jocularity."
    (Alex Williams, "(-: Just Between You and Me ;-)" The New York Times, July 29, 2007)
  • The Original Emoticon?
    "While reforming the language I crave leave to introduce an improvement in punctuation--the snigger point, or note of cachinnation. It is written thus \_/ and represents, as nearly as may be, a smiling mouth. It is to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence; or, without the stop, to every jocular or ironical clause of a sentence otherwise serious--thus: 'Mr. Edward Bok is the noblest work of God \_/.' 'Our respected and esteemed \_/ contemporary, Mr. Slyvester Vierick, whom for his virtues we revere and for his success envy \_/, is going to the devil as fast as his two heels can carry him.' 'Deacon Harvey, a truly good man \_/, is self-made in the largest sense of the term; for although he was born great, wise and rich, the deflection of his nose is the work of his own coat-sleeve.'

    "To many a great writer the new point will be as useful as was the tail to his unlettered ancestor."
    (Ambrose Bierce, "For Brevity and Clarity." Antepenultimata. The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. 11, 1912)
  • Vladimir Nabokov on the Smiley Face
    "Once, recounting a reporter's question as to where Nabokov ranked himself among writers of his era, the Russian émigré replied obliquely: '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.'

    "Nabokov had wittily, if unwittingly, re-created Bierce’s note of cachinnation. Yet Nabokov’s 'supine round bracket' was simply an unrelated typographical joke, and its life ended on the same page on which it had begun."
    (Keith Houston, "Something to Smile About." The Wall Street Journal, September 28-29, 2013)

    Pronunciation: ee-MOTE-i-kon

    Also Known As: a smiley