A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 2: what went before

This is the second in a series of thirteen posts on Emoji (😂). Start at PART 1, continue to PART 3 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

As we saw in part 1, emoji did not arise in a vacuum. In designing his suite of icons, Shigetaka Kurita selected subjects that would be both recognisable and useful in the context of NTT DOCOMO’s new mobile internet service. Smiling faces (😊) and broken hearts (💔) conveyed emotion; trains (🚆) and planes (✈️) called up ticket booking services; videogame controllers (🎮) denoted mobile games; and so on. But the way in which emoji were and are presented — embedded among our letters and words while simultaneously being distinct from them — has always been as important as their content. In this respect, emoji owe as much to ancient scrolls, medieval books and typewriters as they do to pagers and mobile phones.

It feels redundant to say so, especially on a blog about punctuation, but the letters both of our alphabet and of others have never travelled alone. There have always been a select few non-alphabetic characters along for the ride. Some are functional, such as the marks of punctuation that form part of our written language; others are decorative; and still more live somewhere between the two extremes. In ancient Greece, for example, elaborate coronides marked the ends of books and poems.1 In Rome, K-shaped capitula, or “little heads”, signalled the start of each new section of a work and would later evolve into the pilcrow (¶), or paragraph mark. And both Greek and Roman scribes were partial to using hedera, or ivy leaves (❦), to break up lengthy passages.2

P.Lit.Lond. 134: Hyperides, In Philippidem
A bird-shaped coronis marks the end of a section of text in P.Lit.Lond. 134: Hyperides, In Philippidem. (Image taken from Classical texts from papyri in the British Museum; including the newly discovered poems of Herodas (1891), page 43.)

Later, as the paged codex supplanted the scroll, writers added yet more auxiliary marks such as asterisks (*), crosses (✠) and daggers (†)3,4 with which they organised footnotes and other asides. Some symbols were so important that it was the job of specialist scribes called “rubricators” to add them in contrasting red or blue ink after the fact.5 Readers, too, could not resist embellishing the page with their own marks, many of which took the form of little inky hands, or manicules (☞), that danced alongside the text to point out noteworthy passages.

Typographic hedera in Konrad Peutinger's Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi
Typographic hedera in
Konrad Peutinger’s Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi, printed in 1505 by Erhard Ratdolt. Words are separated by wedge-shaped interpuncts that mimic ancient Roman inscriptions. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 image © Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi [Conradus Peutinger].)

Some of these marks crossed over to the printed page, although the difficulties of printing in multiple colours meant that rubricators were still called in to add them by hand.5 The pilcrow (¶) was one such mark, inked into blank spaces left by the printer at the head of each paragraph. But when the growing tide of printed books started to outpace the abilities of rubricators to decorate them, the pilcrow fell by the wayside to leave behind the modern indented paragraph.6,7*

The pilcrow’s disappearance was symptomatic of a broader change in typographic sensibilities. Not only did mass production put rubricators out of business but, in the pursuit of readability, many printers favoured an aethetic style notable mostly for its lack of ornamentation. Gutenberg himself used only letters, abbreviations and a handful of punctuation marks for his pioneering 42-line Bible, for example,8 while the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, active a few decades later, cemented the trend with a series of sparsely-decorated pocket-sized books that would set the tone for centuries to come.9

There was more trouble in store in the late nineteenth century when the invention of the typewriter dealt another blow to typographic sophistication. Conceived primarily as a tool for business, the typewriter’s QWERTY keyboard bore only letters, numbers, a few marks of punctuation and a dollar sign. Even the digits ‘0’ and ‘1’ were omitted: why waste the keys when the letters ‘O’ and ‘I’ would do just as well in their place?10,11 First, printers had deemed it recherché to use too many ornamental characters; now the typewriter made it impossible to type them in the first place.12 The era of the typographic special character seemed to be over.

As it happened, the arid environment of the typewriter keyboard was more fertile than it seemed. There might be no pointing fingers or ivy leaves immediately to hand, but the letters, numbers and symbols that remained could be combined to make entirely new designs. And so almost as soon as the typewriter had arrived, secretaries, stenographers and writers created the new medium of typewriter art, in which mundane typewritten characters became the raw material for increasingly creative graphic artworks.13

Typewritten portrait of Dorothy Gish
A typewritten portrait of actress Dorothy Gish made by Kenneth Taylor, an office boy at the Los Angeles Times, around 1919. (Image from Photoplay magazine, January-June 1919.)

By the early 1980s the QWERTY keyboard had become the interface to a new world of computers and networking, and typewriter art was along for the ride. Graphical user interfaces were still rare (Apple’s Lisa went on sale in 1983; the Mac a year later14,15) and computer users were accustomed to word processors, spreadsheets and games presenting themselves using only the ninety-five printable characters of the ASCII character set.16 (There was, inevitably, an accompanying fad for “ASCII pr0n” — titillating images composed of nothing more than the symbols on the computer keyboard.17 Who could have predicted that the internet would become a hotbed of such iniquitous material?)

It was into this text-only world that emoji’s first true ancestor was born. Comprising only a colon, a hyphen and a closing parenthesis, the emoticon, or :-), was perfectly designed to pierce the disinterested blankness of a CRT monitor. Granted, so-called emoticons have been discovered in many pre-digital sources, such as seventeenth century poems:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.18

and transcriptions of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches:

…there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and you, that I have found nothing in the Constitution against.19

but these are almost certainly typographic missteps rather than intentional smileys. The consensus is that emoticons proper arrived in 1982 in response to a joke gone wrong on an electronic bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University. We open the scene with a puzzle posed by CMU computer scientist Neil Swartz:

16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question
This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:
There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls. What happens to the candle and the mercury?

There followed a complaint that a mercury spill was no laughing matter, whether real or not. With tongues firmly in cheeks, Swartz and others took it upon themselves to discuss how such misunderstandings might be avoided in future. In the course of the debate, a colleague of Swartz’s named Scott Fahlman posted the immortal words:

19-Sep-82 11:44    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


Enter the emoticon.

The genius of Fahlman’s suggestion lay in the fact that just about any image of a human face, however abstract, will provoke an emotional reaction on the part of the viewer. So elemental were Fahlman’s inventions that images just like them have been around for millennia: a 4,500-year-old carving found at Nîmes in France is claimed to be the world’s oldest smiley;20 a 1700 BCE urn discovered on the border between Turkey and Syria, daubed with a distinctive :), runs it a close second;21 and similar doodles appear everywhere from medieval manuscripts to comic books. Nor is the modern stereotype of a smiley face an especially new invention. Designed in 1963 by a graphic artist named Harvey Ball, the iconic yellow smiley (🙂 is the closest analogous emoji) has since been co-opted as a symbol for everything from Walmart ad campaigns to acid house record covers.22,23 Even Ingmar Bergman, the famously morose film director, got in on the smiley action. Of course, he chose a “frowny” instead, drawn in lipstick on a mirror in his 1948 film Port of Call: ‘☹’.24

A cheery face in the pages of a manuscript dated to the second half of the thirteenth century. (Conches-en-Ouche, Musée du verre, ms. 0007, f. 061.)
A cheery face in the pages of a manuscript dated to the second half of the thirteenth century. (CC BY-NC 3.0 image of Conches-en-Ouche, Musée du verre, ms. 0007, f. 061, courtesy of La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux.)

Unsurprisingly, then, Fahlman’s happy and unhappy faces struck a chord, spreading first to other universities and then out into the world at large. As they did so, they multplied. In a November 1982 message sent to a colleague at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, CMU’s James Morris expanded the lexicon:25

(:-) for messages dealing with bicycle helmets
@= for messages dealing with nuclear war
<:-) for dumb questions
oo for somebody's head-lights are on messages
o>-<|= for messages of interest to women
~= a candle, to annotate flaming messages

All very creative, and faithful to the spirit of Fahlman’s own typewriter art writ small. But one of Morris’s emoticons in particular anticipated a problem that still vexes emoji users today: when one group of people control a medium, it is easy to marginalise people outside that group. The o>-<|= emoticon, for “messages of interest to women” was as blithely exclusionary then as the preponderance of male emoji has been until very recently.

Emoticons got their first major upgrade in 1986 in the form of kaomoji, or “face characters”. In that year, a Japanese message board user named Yasushi Wakabayashi began signing his posts with his online alias, “Wakan,” follwed by a creative assemblage of characters forming a face: (^ _ ^). Like Fahlman, Yasushi maintains a modest web page describing his part in the invention of kaomoji, where he explains that he wanted to make a smiley that could be immediately understood by all readers. In particular, he wanted his mark to be “right way up” so that readers would see it as a face without having to mentally rotate it through 90 degrees. Perhaps coincidentally, this means that both emoticons and kaomoji are aligned perpendicular to their native scripts: traditional emoticons lie at right angles to texts written in the Latin alphabet, while kaomoji spring from Japanese characters that are more often written from top to bottom.26

At first, only a few people understood what the collection of characters in Wakan’s signature were supposed to mean and today, as kaomoji grow ever more complex, they can still be difficult to decipher. The archetypal “shruggie” ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), for example, is relatively straightforward, as is the gloriously unhinged “table flip” ( (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻ ), but others are not so easily parsed — consider ༼∗ღ۝ღ∗༽ (one of many kaomoji meaning “hunger”) or (#´∞`∫)∫ (“slow clap”), for example.27 And yet, after a slow start, suddenly Yasushi’s kaomoji were everywhere in Japan, taking their place alongside Scott Fahlman’s smileys as the new emotional currency of the internet.

At least, that is, until 1999, when emoji crashed the party.

If it was not immediately apparent that NTT DOCOMO’s little icons were destined for great things, their graduation in 2007 to Google’s Gmail and then, a year later, to Apple’s iPhone made it clear that something important was afoot.28,29 Google searches for “emoji” crept upwards just as those for “emoticon” tailed off.30 A drumbeat of tech news articles told Western iPhone owners how to unlock the hitherto Japan-only icons on their keyboards.29 The fate of the emoticon had been sealed, and today the likes of :-), ;-P, :-(, and :-D have been almost completely replaced by ‘🙂’, ‘😜’, ‘🙁’, ‘😀’ and more.

And yet emoji’s seemingly effortless rise was anything but. More on that next time.

F Schironi, “Book-Ends and Book-Layout in Papyri With Hexametric Poetry”, in, 2010. 
Robert Bringhurst, “Hedera”, in The Elements of Typographic Style : Version 3.2, 2008, 311-. 
M B Parkes, “The Technology of Printing and the Stabilization of the Symbols”, in, 1993, 50-64. 
R A Sayce, “Compositorial Practices and the Localization of Printed Books, 1530–1800”, 1966. 
Geoffrey Glaister A, “Rubricator”, Glossary of the Book, 1960. 
Andrew Haslam, “Articulating Meaning: Paragraphs”, in Book Design, 2006, 73-74. 
Jan Tschichold and Robert Bringhurst, “Why the Beginnings of Paragraphs Must Be Indented”, in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design, 1991, 105-9. 
S Füssel, “Bringing the Technical Inventions Together”, in, 2005, 15-18. 
“Aldus Manutius, Scholar-Printer (c.1445-1515)”, nls.Uk, May–2012. 
C E Weller, “Home of First Typewriter”, in The Early History of the Typewriter, 1921, 20-21. 
Christopher Latham Sholes, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machines. U.S. Patent 207,559.”, August–1878. 
J L Bell, “Dash It All!”, Oz and Ends, March–2009. 
Maria Popova, “A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today”, Brain Pickings, 2014. 
Christoph Dernbach, “Apple Lisa”, Mac History, 2007. 
Christoph Dernbach, “The History of the Apple Macintosh”, Mac History, 2011. 
Vint Cerf, “RFC 20: ASCII Format for Network Interchange”, ed. Network Working Group, October–1969. 
K Mey, Art and Obscenity, 2006. 
Levi Stahl, “The First Emoticon?”, Ivebeenreadinglately, 2014. 
Jennifer 8. Lee, “Is That an Emoticon in 1862?”, New York Times
Danny Kringiel, “Millionen für Ein Lächeln”, Spiegel Online, 2011. 
Zuhal Uzundere Kocalar, “Ancient Pot Discovery in Turkey Contests Smiley Origin”, Andalou Agency, 2017. 
Jack Neff, “Walmart Brings Back the Smiley Face in Ads and in Store”, Ad Age, 2016. 
Christian Bernard-Cedervall and Antonin Pruvot, “How Did the Smiley Face Became an Icon of Rave Culture?”, Trax, 2016. 
Ingmar Bergman, “Port of Call”, 1948. 
Scott Fahlman, “‘Joke’ Conversation Thread in Which the :-) Was Invented”, Scott E. Fahlman
若林泰志, “顔文字の起源 ({\^{}}_{\^{}})”
“10,000+ Japanese Emoticons, Kaomoji, Text Faces & Dongers”, JapaneseEmoticons.Me
Lauren Schwartzberg, “The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)”, Fast Company, 2014. 
Arnold Kim, “IPhone 2.2 Includes Hidden Japanese Emoji Icons”, Mac Rumors, 2008. 
“Emoticon, Kaomoji, Emoji”, Google Trends
You can read more about the pilcrow here at Shady Characters
I’ve also written previously in more detail about Fahlman’s invention. 

6 comments on “Emoji, part 2: what went before

  1. Comment posted by Michael Hurley on

    I’m quite surprised you made no mention of the famous typographical face art published in an 1881 edition of “Puck” magazine. They were specifically designed to conveigh emotion through basic typographical characters and are considered by some to be the earliest true proto-emoticons yet known.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Michael,

      I left out the Puck emoticons for a couple of reasons — first, I’ve already written about them in the Shady Characters book, and second, as far as I know they were never used within the text itself.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by Phillip Helbig on

    “Even Ing­mar Berg­man, the fam­ously mor­ose film dir­ector,”

    While some of his films are rather gloomy (but, at the same time, some of the best films ever made), privately he was a cheerful fellow. I remember seeing an interview with him around the time of his death, in which he laughed a lot.

    With 4 wives and 9 children (with only 1, Liv Ullmann’s daughter, from an unwed mother) he wasn’t all doom and gloom. His marriages and children are more complicated than described in this brief comment, and allegedly all were always on friendly terms with one another.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Phillip — thanks for the comment! I’ll defer to you on this one. For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave the post as is.

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