The First Emoticon May Have Appeared in ... 1648

The discovery would push back the pre-history of the emoticon by (at least) 200 years.
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Robert Herrick

A dedicated poetry reader appears to have discovered a smiley face in a poem from 1648, a find that would extend the pre-history of the emoticon back by about 200 years

Editor Levi Stahl, publicity manager for the University of Chicago Press, was taking in some poems by Robert Herrick when he noticed a rather unusual typographic formation in the second line of the poem "To Fortune." 

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)

That sure looks like a smiley face.

Now, one can imagine that the printer accidentally included a colon before the close parenthesis. It could just be a mistake. But given the context of smiling yet, it seems more believable that this was an attempt at an orthographic joke. (Perhaps it should even have been a winky smiley face ;).

Why would anyone care about a smiley face in a poem from the 17th century? For me, it's like a wormhole that connects our time with theirs. If you'd been alive in 1648, you might have considered that a colon and a parenthesis form a smiley face. Our ancestors looked upon the same marks on the page and saw the possibilities that we take for granted. 

While emoticons have probably been independently invented many times—the earliest documented use of the smiley face with a nose, :-), comes in 1982—Herrick very well could have been the first.

Update: English professor Alan Jacobs files a dissent: "Not that parentheses weren’t used in verse in Herrick’s time — they were — but not as widely as we use them today and not in the same situations," Jacobs writes. "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."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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