As anyone who fancies themselves any level of wordsmith will tell you, emoticons are the devil [winky face]. They represent, quite simply, the laziness of a society that no longer makes the efforts to express themselves in words(“use your words,” we chide in self-righteous indignation); at least, so I thought. But, also as a wordsmith, I must recognize the times as they change. To me there is a reason why the word “lunting” no longer exists in our common vernacular—simply put, people no longer need a word for walking while smoking a pipe (although, the boys of the infamous, locals-only Snuffed Briar would no doubt object)! Not that it doesn’t happen, just that it no longer represents so commonplace a thing so as to warrant its own place in our modern vernacular.
Quite factually speaking, it is precisely the fact that languages do change that makes them a living, breathing thing, and keeps the spoken/written word relevant, as forms of expression; even a novice linguist will tell you this [smiley face]. As a portmanteau of emotion and icon, it has additionally become something that can no longer be ignored, and is no doubt here to stay as long as the mediums under which they thrive continue to do so. As a pictorial representation of a facial expression that indicates more the mood and tone to a medium that otherwise is potentially inadequate to completely convey, perhaps I have been too rash in my rush to judgment. It seems, maybe…just maybe, even the act of hating them is something as bygone as home phones making them as necessary to modern life as the smartphone itself; whoa, that would be rough [rosy-cheeked bashful face].
Still, when it comes to the emoticon, I have a serious want to be snobbish [happy face with sunglasses on]. But I must acknowledge that it seems there are increasingly times when only an emoticon will express what I am feeling (the laborious nature of all the above as case in point). I know, it sounds silly, but while there is no word that, in the world of business might allow me to type “cute lil’ smiley face,” the mere presence of one might actually better express the sentiment I mean to convey. In addition, as the visual human-head-facial equivalent of a little kitten, it can in fact buy you all kinds of leeway when trying to soften either an insult, a perceived negative answer, or a simple “no” to a friends request. Consider this: your friend asks you to help them move, you reply, via text, that simply, “I can’t.” Your friend is mad and assumes he has been flatly rejected by an unconcerned amigo. But if you say “I cant,J” who can be mad at that? This suggests, I can’t but please don’t be mad, as I wish that I could. Consider it a pictured equivalent to the insult sandwich (The process that took off in the 90’s workplace political correctness wherein a person softened an insult by opening and closing with a compliment; hence the compliments are the bread of what they are saying, meant to make the meat (i.e. the insult) go down easier). Duplicitous though it may be, it works. In contrast, what about the same request to help a friend move, but expressed with its opposite “I can’t,L”. This seemingly serves to say, “no I cannot help you, but dear friend, look how saddened I am by this?” So, much like our caved and stone wielding Neanderthal brothers of yore: where words fail, pictures suffice.
And while we are on the subject of pictures as words, what about the font Wing-Dings? Has there ever been anybody in history who used this to express a particular thought? Perhaps then the medium comes into play too. While in the middle of a word document it might seem a lazy concession to using one’s ‘big boy’ words, in text form, it often says more than additional letters might. And if we are truly analyzing the medium, then we must acknowledge the true reason perhaps why emoticons have thrived in this environment: texts (much like their email brethren have long been criticized for not supplying tone to accompany the message, thus many messages go seriously misunderstood, often to either comedic or dramatic effect. When seen through that prism it makes sense that they have flourished and are thus almost used as another form of punctuation, meant only to further elucidate the full meaning of a sentence.
Notably, it would be a man named Scott Fahlman on a Carnegie Mellon Computer group message board on September 19th, 1982 that would be the first to suggest the =) and =( as characters to imply emotion; but it would not be until the actual coded development of the emoji in 1999 (the pictures we now call emoticons, as opposed to our previous manipulation of punctuation to closely resemble a picture) that would serve as the true tipping point wherein they would be used by the masses. Still, if you’ve never seen Kurt Vonegut’s favorite emoticon, captured far before the language was known as such, as far back as 1973’s Breakfast of Champions novel (and used often across novels since in the same manner) then now would be a good time to go check it out; once again, the genius ahead of his time. Which I guess basically means I should get used to emoticons, and work to see them for what they are: a tool to aid in expression, and perhaps not the devil after all [smileyface][weary face][single tear face][sleepy face].