The emoticon as we know it was invented to prevent a misunderstanding.
In 1982, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University began trading quips on an online bulletin board about what might happen if their building’s elevator cable were cut, sending the elevator into free fall. The conversation soon turned to various bizarre hypotheticals: What if the falling elevator had a candle in it? Or a pigeon? Or a drop of mercury? One jokester took the thread to its absurd conclusion: “WARNING!: Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury.”
Realizing how easily the conversation could be misconstrued, the scientists concluded that they needed a better way to signal sarcasm—to distinguish the jokes from the everything else. Someone proposed an asterisk. Someone else, an ampersand (on the grounds that “&” resembles “a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter”). And then a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman chimed in with the compound punctuation mark that would live on in chat windows and e‑mail inboxes the Internet over: “ :-) ”
“We were just nerds, goofing around,” Fahlman, now a research professor at Carnegie Mellon, told me. “This was not meant to be a serious invention.” But the smiley and its cousins succeeded where generations of misunderstood sarcasts had failed. In the late 1800s, the poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed a point d’ironie resembling a backward question mark—a suggestion echoed, a century later, by the novelist Hervé Bazin. Nabokov wanted “a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.” Ambrose Bierce offered the “snigger point” (a horizontal parenthesis, or “”) to punctuate “every jocular or ironical sentence.”