The grumpy history of the smiley emoticon

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Scott Fahlman, computer scientist and typography genius, invented the smiley emoticon. But today's ubiquitous smiley had a few precursors. One involved a tongue, and the other involved Ambrose Bierce. Pick your favorite.

In 1982, Scott Fahlman decided to help computer users out by inventing a little sign that could let others know when they were joking. The smiley, :-), has taken the sting out of many a remark, and many variations of it have been dreamed up and circulated in tedious chain emails throughout the nineteen-nineties. Fahlman deserves credit for what is, in the end, a useful invention, but he wasn't the first to have the general idea.


Earlier versions have not been as visually or dramatically effective. A Reader's Digest contributor in 1967 reported that her aunt invented a sign, -), denoting a tongue being stuck in a cheek. She would put it after each tongue-in-cheek remark she made during a letter.

But a more notable, and much earlier, version of a smiley was invented by none other than Ambrose Bierce. Ambrose Bierce gained fame in the early nineteen hundreds for being a writer and a jerk, in (just barely) that order. He's most well-known for publishing The Devil's Dictionary, a comic dictionary that featured joke definitions. The book's definition of "felon" is, "a person of greater enterprise than discretion, who in embracing an opportunity has formed an unfortunate attachment." Its definition of "befriend" is "to make an ingrate."


Bierce suggested that people use a "snigger point," rendered as \_/, to let other people know when they were joking. Since Bierce wasn't making a suggestion, and generally sent the idea around as an unsubtle message to people he thought didn't "get" his humor, he missed out on a great idea. Given his motto - "Nothing matters" - it probably wouldn't break his heart to know that.

Via Virtual Words, Mad Science, and Language Log.