An emoticon is a collection of glyphs and characters that can be interpreted as a comprehensible image to the human eye once presented together in a certain order. It is not to be confused as an emoji- the two are distinctly different. I will begin by explaining what an emoji is and why it is different to an emoticon. The etymology of the word emoji comes from the Japanese word for picture- 絵 (‘e’)- and the Japanese word for character 文字 (‘moji’). Emojis are pictographs- they are coded to be images, whereas emoticons are images assembled from characters found in scripts. This is the main difference and an important distinction to note. Emojis are also a more recent invention, and more commonly used by the online population of today. That being said, our focus for this essay will be on the history, etymology and geographical use of emoticons in online language, as well as discussion on the background of their development through information technologies throughout the essay.
What is the purpose of emoticons? Well, before the days of easy access to emojis on phones, emoticons were the most efficient way of inserting little mood conveyers into texts and emails. Their use has always been informal in one way or another. Remember how we learnt the meaning of the word ‘emoji’ in the previous paragraph? Now I will explain the etymology of emoticon- I believe it will give comprehensive insight into its own use and purpose. Emoticon is derived from the English words ‘emotion’ and ‘icon.’ As this derivation suggests, their purpose is to convey an emotion within a text through imagery, without having to insert pictures. Most emoticons convey facial expressions and actions. The Britannica encyclopaedia states that the emoticon first originated in 1982 when Scott E. Fahlman, an American computer scientist, posited that in order to avoid confusion :- ) and :- ( should be used to respectively indicate either funny or serious posts online.
Geographically, there is a big distinction between the emoticons that developed as part of online speech in the West and the emoticons that emerged from the East, in particular Japan. In Japanese, emoticons are often referred to as kaomoji- from 顔 (‘kao’, meaning face) and the aforementioned word for character, 文字 (‘moji’). The emoticons that have emerged from Japan are stylistically quite different to those that came from the West- Western emoticons have a notable emphasis on the mouth to express the change in emotion, whereas kaomoji use the eyes of the emoticon to convey the intended emotion. Kaomoji also are much more complex due to their use of characters. Western emoticons are constructed (generally) using characters from the Latin alphabet which are written in single-byte character sets. The original emoticons were coded in ASCII. This standard data-encoding format allowed for emoticons to be shared effectively between different computers.
In contrast, Japanese emoticons are constructed with various characters from multiple scripts, although mainly the scripts that are to be found commonly on Japanese keyboard- Latin, kana and CJK. Allow me to demonstrate by typing out two different variations of emoticon expressing happiness:
A: ヽ (*⌒▽⌒*) ﾉ B: :- D
Try and see if you can distinguish which of the above example emoticons is of Japanese origin, and which is Western.
If you surmised that A is the Japanese emoticon and B is the Western one, you would be correct! What makes the Japanese emoticon more complex is not only the additional characters to flesh out the ‘image’ but also the fact that Japanese characters require (at minimum) a double-byte character set. Nowadays, emoticons (and also emojis) are supported by the Unicode standard, having been introduced in Unicode version 6.0 which came out in 2010. Before this some characters were also included, but version 6.0 paved the way for full inclusion of emoticons as a part of online text occurrence. One additional implementation of Unicode emoticons was it allowed the manual typing of emoticons (seemingly specifically the western style ones, as I have found) to act as a shortcut to input emojis. For example, typing : – ) without the spaces in a word document and pressing enter will create the following emoji: 😊. There is a section in Unicode that is titled Emoticons and broadly covers the various forms, ranging from the code points U+1F600 to U+1F64F.
In conclusion, at the height of their popularity (and in modern times to some extent as well) emoticons offered a widespread way to broadcast the basis of human functions online, through the medium of text communications. The development of emoticons is intrinsically linked to unicode and the development of character sets- they are a solid part of the internets linguistic development. Emoticons are a pathway to sharing and conveying human emotion in a technological world.
Davis, Mark, & Holbrook, Ned. “Unicode Emoji.” Unicode, Inc., 2022, http://unicode.org/reports/tr51/. Accessed 20 December 2022.
Grannan, Cydney. “What’s the Difference Between Emoji and Emoticons?”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/story/whats-the-difference-between-emoji-and-emoticons. Accessed 21 December 2022.
Senft, Theresa M. “Emoticon.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014, https://academic-eb-com.ucc.idm.oclc.org/levels/collegiate/article/emoticon/608755. Accessed 21 December 2022.
Unknown. “Unicode® 6.0.0.” Unicode, Inc., 2010, http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode6.0.0/. Accessed 19 December 2022.