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What are Emoticons?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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The word emoticon is a combination of the words emotion and icon. Emoticons are used online to covey intonation or voice inflection, bodily gestures and emotion behind statements that might otherwise be misinterpreted.

The most common emoticon is a smiley face, made with the colon for eyes, and the left parenthesis as the smile, viewed at a 90-degree angle. :)

Sometimes a dash is used between the eyes and mouth to indicate a nose. :-)

This emoticon is normally used to convey lightheartedness, happiness, facetiousness or joking. To see the difference an emoticon can make, just look at the following two statements:

Yeah, James, you looked like a real geek. or...

Yeah, James, you looked like a real geek. :)

Whether or not James would consider a being a "geek" a badge of honor or an insult, the first statement minus the emoticon looks like it is surely intended to be an insult. The second statement, however, with its smiling face is very clearly intended to be taken in a playful manner and is not likely to cause offense.

Emoticons play an important part in online communication because the vast majority of people communicating have never met and do not know each other well, if at all. Misinterpretation of intentions is all too easy, minus the facial expressions and verbal inflections that face-to-face communication affords.

With the popularity of the smiley emoticon other emoticons quickly followed. Sometimes an emoticon will become popular in a particular newsgroup or Web group, but will not be known outside that group. Other emoticons have become part of the international language of the Internet.

A few common emoticons include:

  • :-( frown
  • ;-) wink
  • :(```` crying
  • >:) mischievous grin
  • :-/ smirk or confused
  • :-P smiling and sticking out your tongue
  • :-D laughing hard
  • >:-\ mad

The smile and frown emoticons were first suggested by computer scientist Scott Fahlman on 19 September 1982. Fahlman's post, to a Carnegie Mellon University message board, was pulled from the archives on 10 September 2002 to settle the long-standing rumor that they originated with him. Some believe emoticons were also used earlier by other parties. In any case it seems clear they were bound to be part of our online vernacular.

Along the same lines there are other shortcuts for relaying emotions: <g> = grin, <G> = big grin, and <VBG> = very big grin! A few other acronyms commonly seen online hand-in-hand with emoticons are:

  • LOL laughing out loud
  • ROTFL rolling on the floor laughing
  • BFN bye for now
  • TTYL talk to you later
  • IMO in my opinion
  • IMHO in my humble opinion
  • IMNSHO in my not so humble opinion
  • IIRC if I recall correctly
  • IAC in any case
  • OTOH on the other hand
  • FWIW for what it's worth
  • HTH hope that helps

Emoticons and acronyms are part of Internet lingo and are evolving even as the Internet evolves. And while this fascinating medium that has brought together total strangers from around the globe continues to enlighten, delight and educate us, emoticons will be there like little ambassadors helping to make our intentions clear!

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Discussion Comments
By anon951736 — On May 17, 2014

Irony that this comment system blocks emoticons/smilies. So you have to use *wink* instead of semicolon and parentheses.

By Vaclav — On Apr 17, 2011

There are a lot of websites where you can get emoticons for free, which can be great if you're into that kind of thing. The only problem is that they tend to take up a lot of bandwidth. Some forums discourage the use of emoticons from certain sites because of this.

By Sara84 — On Apr 15, 2011

@anon144880 - I agree that emoticons are very common and are on many platforms. The two forums I am a member of even have emoticons to use when you post to the forum or send a private message.

By anon144880 — On Jan 21, 2011

Emoticons and smileys are so common that every platform has its own smileys like msn, yahoo, google. even facebook has introduced its own facebook emoticons for its chat room.

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