Shakespeare Invented the Emoticon :)

14 Feb

Seriously, he did – he was using them even before Abraham Lincoln killed his first vampire.

There may be readers not familiar with the term emoticon, but those who are can skip the rest of this paragraph. The term refers to the use of typographical symbols (letters, numbers, and punctuation marks) to express non-verbally a writer’s mood or the intended tenor of a written remark. The classic emoticon is the ‘smiley’ :-) and its sad counterpart :-(  and their respective reduced forms :) and :(  (for those completely unfamiliar with emoticons, these are held to resemble the face of a person smiling or frowning, turned on its side).

The majority view holds that emoticons were invented by Scott Fahlman in 1982, with the sequence :-) proposed to unambiguously indicate that the comment is intended as a joke, though it is often noted that the non-verbal use of typography to indicate emotion goes back to the late 19th century. The humorous magazine Puck, in 1881, used punctuation to denote emotions, but it did it over four lines, not in-line, and thus was really the use of punctuation to create a graphic image, somewhat distinct from a true emoticon. Here they are reproduced from Wikipedia:


These cannot even be typed in the usual sense, because the parentheses are rotated through ninety degrees. They may, however, be considered early precursors of the emoticon.

There is a famous occurrence of what appears to be a winking smiley ;)  (nowadays used to accompany a sly joke, a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ comment) in a transcript of a speech given by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, though this can quite reasonably be argued to be unintentional. The transcript notes audience response at one point in the speech with “(applause and laughter ;)”. This may be a typo, or a legitimate piece of punctuation. The semi-colon seems ill-suited to the notion of laughter.

Some early modern-day emoticons, pre-dating Fahlman’s, include the use of -) to indicate ‘tongue-in-cheek’, and is quite clearly a proto-emoticon. This differs from the latter-day emoticon in that the orientation is not ‘on its side’.

Some latter day emoticons have become quite ornate. One of my favourites is the following:


That’s a clown in a chef’s hat with a handlebar moustache and soul tooth/goatee smiling and winking. Or is it a chef with a clown nose…  I’m sure you can produce something equally elaborate, and there are numerous websites where you can find a wealth of smiling characters and other emoticons.

What has not been noticed before, to the best of my knowledge, is an occurrence of an apparent emoticon in the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays (1623), where the sequence :) follows immediately the naming of a hypothetical cuckolding neighbour as Sir Smile. While this can clearly be argued to be an artifact of typography, with similar sequences found in the contemporaneous King James Bible, the fact that this sequence is unique in the First Folio, and that it occurs precisely where it occurs, is worthy of attention.

The speech is a soliloquy by Leontes, King of Sicily, in The Winter’s Tale (Act I, scene ii). Leontes has formed himself a notion that his wife Hermione has been having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (and is in fact pregnant by him). Here is the relevant part of the speech:

…there have been

(Or I am much deceiv’d) Cuckolds ere now,

And many a man there is (even at this present,

Now, while I speake this) holds his Wife by th’Arme.

That little thinks she ha’s been sluyc’d in’s absence.

And his Pond fish’d by his next Neighbor (by

Sir Smile, his Neighbor:) nay, there’s comfort in’t

Whiles other men have Gates, and those Gates open’d

(As mine) against their will.

After he lets loose some of the most repugnant sexual imagery to be found in Shakespeare (she has been sluiced… his pond fished), he finds a bitter-sweet epithet to call his friend, Sir Smile, his neighbour, and then presents us immediately with the smiling face.


Could this be a stage direction, either the suggestion of a specific outward gesture, or just the sense of inner wryness, that would no doubt twist the knife of imagined adultery? Before we get too carried away, it’s worth acknowledging (admitting?) that the right parenthesis of the alleged emoticon is the closing of the parenthesis that began with by Sir Smile, and while the colon looks oddly placed to a contemporary reader’s eye, it can be explained. Following the work of Neil Freeman (Shakespeare’s First Texts, The First Folio in Modern Print), it can be argued that the colon indicates that the following thought proceeds logically, following an intellectual hurdle, from the one before the colon. While this does indeed appear to be the case – Leontes reaches the end of this particular piece of self-torture and must gather his wits to launch into the next bit of loathing – was the reason for placing the comma before, rather than after, the colon more than mere accident?

It is therefore, with a slight tendency of tongue towards cheek -) , that I propose that it was William Shakespeare who invented the smiley and thereby the emoticon, three hundred and seventy odd years before its currently accepted invention.


3 Responses to “Shakespeare Invented the Emoticon :)”

  1. agro firms in UA February 18, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Normally I do not read article on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very nice post.


  1. Shakespeare And Emoticons | Terence Eden has a Blog - February 19, 2013

    […] Rob Pensalfini has written a delightful blog in which he accuses (or perhaps credits) Shakespeare with inventing the emoticon. […]

  2. A Shakespeare Invention « .:) Period Smiley Face, The Emoticon for Modern Communication - April 25, 2013

    […] It is therefore, with a slight tendency of tongue towards cheek -) , that I propose that it was William Shakespeare who invented the smiley and thereby the emoticon, three hundred and seventy odd years before its currently accepted invention. Continue reading […]

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