GOOD

The Very Long History of Emoticons


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I used to be anti-emoticon. For years, I thought of smiley faces as the mark of an immature writer—the kind who punctuates a sentence with seven exclamation points. Then one day, after years of reading them, I was composing a sentence I wanted to make very sure the reader knew was a joke—and so I did it. Slowly, those little guys crept into my emails. I started becoming enamored of the more clever ones, and still cannot help but smile when I see the sad monkey face: (:@

A punctuation purist would claim that emoticons are debased ways to signal tone and voice, something a good writer should be able to indicate with words. But the contrary is true: The history of punctuation is precisely the history of using symbols to denote tone and voice. Seen in this way, emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark. And despite the oft-repeated story that Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman invented the smiley and the frown face all the way back in 1982, the history of emoticons goes back much further.

In 1887, Ambrose Bierce wrote an essay, "For Brevity and Clarity," suggesting ways to alter punctuation to better represent tone. He proposed a single bracket flipped horizontally for wry smiles, "to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence."

Then in 1969, Vladimir Nabokov was interviewed by The New York Times, which asked him how he ranks himself among living writers and those of the immediate past. "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," he said.

So is it okay to invent punctuation marks? Absolutely. At first, writing had no punctuation at all. Usually, authors dictated their words to scribes, and were meant to be recordings of speech. The scribes were simply transcribers, and had no license to add anything not heard by the speaker. Also, no one read silently. All writing was read aloud.

A space is a punctuation mark, remember, so in those days, everyone used a script called scripta continua, which, as you may guessed, meant therewerenospacesbetweenwords. As more people began reading, itbecamehardertoreadthedamnedmanuscripts, and punctuation marks were invented to ease reading aloud.

The earliest marks indicated how a speaker’s voice should adjust to reflect the tone of the words. Punctus interrogativus is a precursor to today’s question mark, and it indicates that the reader should raise his voice to indicate inquisitiveness. Tone and voice were literal in those days: Punctuation told the speaker how to express the words he was reading out loud to his audience, or to himself. A question mark, a comma, a space between two words: These are symbols that denote written tone and voice for a primarily literate—as opposed to oral—culture. There is no significant difference between them and a modern emoticon.

It is true that some people go overboard, cluttering their writing with silly waving hands and kissy faces. But the same outpouring of new marks occurred in the Middle Ages, too, when the old hoary punctuation marks—the ones we now teach 5th graders—were new and exciting.

By the first millennium, manuscripts were overrun with unintelligible marks thought up by too-clever scribes. A few hundred years later, everyone tired of all the chaos and punctuation marks became more codified, streamlined, and fewer in number. Centuries later, the marks left standing were awarded a prized place on the typewriter keyboard, leaving scads of now forgotten /// and {>+ inside the type drawers of printing presses. Today, your computer keyboard still has a only a few doo-dads to supplement the letters.

And so it goes again. We started to play. We came up with a chaotic overabundance of new punctuation marks to better express ourselves. Given the pace of things, I’d say we have another decade or so before a few make it into grammar books. The SAT 2020 may test you on your proficiency in ? and :_(.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Aj03

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