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Breaking news. The first emoticon is not in this 17th century poem


n the 13th of April 2014, Levi Stahl, editor and publicity manager at the University of Chicago Press got really excited on what he claims to be the first emoticon ever. His blog post regarding the second line of Robert Herrick's poem “To Fortune,” which was published in Hesperides in 1648, became a viral internet sensation in an instance. Several sites got pretty excited on what it seemed to be the evidence of the first metacommunicative pictorial representation of a facial expression ever, but Ben Zimmer - the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, among other things, has clearly a different opinion.

“Despite the fact that, as Alan Jacobs has pointed out, Herrick's poem did not consistently include that colon-parenthesis combination in later editions, it really does appear that way in the original 1648 publication of his collected works. Bonnie Taylor-Blake, an industrious researcher on the origins of words and phrases, shared this scan of the original, pulled from the Early English Books Online database.

But Taylor-Blake also noticed that on the very next page, in a poem entitled “To Anthea,” the colon and closing parenthesis once again appear side by side: Would a modern-day reader like Stahl even have thought twice about this second example? Probably not, since it's the happenstance appearance of the word "smiling" in "To Fortune" that primes an interpretation of the colon and parenthesis as a proto-emoticon”.

These modern day hieroglyphics managed to extract the many facets of human emotions to the not so many symbols available on a computer’s keyboard in a way that according to a very recent scientific study make us react the same way to an emoticon as we do to a human face IRL. But most probably have not been around for centuries. To be exact, Scott Elliott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, was the first documented person to use the emoticons :-) and :-(, with a specific suggestion that they are used to express emotion, almost 32 years ago.

The quest to find the first original emoticon ever has been going on for years. New York Times claimed once that they have traced it back to the transcript of an 1862 speech by Abraham Lincoln, that includes a ;) symbol (although the veracity of it is highly debatable as it is more likely to be a typo rather than an expression of happiness) and last month this dedicated word aficionado from Chicago reminded us of the obsession that some people have with symbols of any kind. The debate goes on forever, English Professor Alan Jacobs was kind enough to share this path of knowledge with us by arguing that “Punctuation in general was unsettled in the seventeenth century — as unsettled as spelling: Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways — and there were no generally accepted rules. Herrick was unlikely to have consistent punctuational practices himself, and even if he did he couldn't expect either his printers or his readers to share them" and although this new revelation seems to be a non revelation at all, emoticons are a language beyond words that deserves to be appreciated in any way possible. Emoticons were essential also to the author of "Lolita" Vladimir Nabokov. This is what the Nostradamus of emoticons answered to Alden Whitman back in April 1969 for The New York Times:

Q: How  do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?
Nabokov: I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

Emoticons are a language beyond words that deserves to be appreciated any way possible and this bittersweet fairytale is dedicated to you.