An emoticon (/ɪˈmoʊtɪkɒn/, i-MOHT-i-kon, rarely pronounced /ɪˈmɒtɪkɒn/) is a pictorial representation of a facial expression using characters—usually punctuation marks, numbers, and letters—to express a person’s feelings or mood, or as a time-saving method. The first ASCII emoticons, 🙂 and :-(, were written by Scott Fahlman in 1982, but emoticons actually originated on the PLATO IV computer system in 1972.

In Western countries, emoticons are usually written at a right angle to the direction of the text. Users from Japan popularized a kind of emoticon called kaomoji (顔文字; lit. 顔(kao)=face, 文字(moji)=character(s)) that can be understood without tilting one’s head to the left. This style arose on ASCII NET of Japan in 1986.

As SMS and the internet became widespread in the late 1990s, emoticons became increasingly popular and were commonly used on text messages, internet forums and e-mails. Emoticons have played a significant role in communication through technology, and some devices and applications have provided stylized pictures that do not use text punctuation. They offer another range of “tone” and feeling through texting that portrays specific emotions through facial gestures while in the midst of text-based cyber communication.

Origin of the term

The word is a portmanteau word of the English words “emotion” and “icon”. In web forums, instant messengers and online games, text emoticons are often automatically replaced with small corresponding images, which came to be called “emoticons” as well. Emoticons for a smiley face 🙂 and sad face 🙁 appear in the first documented use in digital form. Certain complex character combinations can only be accomplished in double-byte languages, giving rise to especially complex forms, sometimes known by their romanized Japanese name of kaomoji.

The use of emoticons can be traced back to the 17th century, drawn by a Slovak notary to indicate his satisfaction with the state of his town’s municipal financial records in 1635, but they were commonly used in casual and humorous writing. Digital forms of emoticons on the Internet were included in a proposal by Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a message on 19 September 1982.