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What are Emoticons? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Mary Firestone
Find out what emoticons are, and how to create them. Learn what the different emoticon symbols mean. Read the lesson, then take a quiz to test your new knowledge.

Emoticons

You've most likely seen emoticons (also known as 'smileys'), but might not have known they had an official name. An 'emoticon' is a small group of symbols arranged to show happiness, sadness and other emotions. The word 'emoticon' is a portmanteau, a term combining two words to create a new one: 'emotion + icon'. In the impersonal world of electronic communication, emoticons give us another way to share our feelings and clarify our meaning.

There's some dispute about who invented emoticons, but one of the first people to use them was Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. On a discussion board in 1982, he proposed a series of facial expressions using colons, semicolons and parenthesis and these are in common use today.

How to Create Them

Emoticons can be created using the symbols and letters on your keyboard. Generally, emoticons look like human faces, placed sideways. However, many smartphones, email programs and online forums have massive emoticon libraries with colorful cartoon smileys and other shapes, many that move like two-second films.

Emoticons in Action

Emoticons are usually placed at the end of a sentence for emphasis, like these text messages:

  • Let me know when you're ready :-)
  • I can't believe I got sick this weekend :-(

Even though thousands of emoticons have been created, a few are common to most of us. For example:

Smiles :-) or :o) or :)

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