31 January 2008


In the beginning, there were sideways smileys. These have been around since the Internet was invented. In simplest form, they consist of two eyes and a mouth in various expressions. The variations from that basic premise are endless, but the following are the most common ones:
    :) or =) <-- smile, happy
    ;) <-- sardonic, or winking
    :p or =p <-- tongue sticking out
    :)) <-- happier, or very big smile
    :D <-- very big toothy smile
    =( or :( <-- sad
    :(( <-- sadder, or crying
    :'( <-- crying
    :\ or :/ or =/ or =\ <-- depends on context; could be crestfallen, anxious, sympathetic, concentration
    :| <-- unhappy, discontented, stressed
    XD <-- a very big toothy smile with eyes squeezed shut and scrunched together
    XP <-- tongue sticking out with eyes squeezed shut and scrunched together

Alternate forms also include a nose, for example:

or, put in the opposite direction (which I've mainly seen from Australians):

Then came right-side-up smileys. These consist of two eyes and a nose. Variations are even more endless. I've always associated them with anime fans (and others heavily influenced by Asian Internet customs), since those were the people who first started using them.
    o.o <-- widened eyes
    o.O or O.o <-- one eye larger than the other, can indicate a wide range of things - suspicious, disbelieving, mild shock, etc.
    O.O <-- total and utter shock
    @.@ <-- drugged, delirious, mesmerized, hypnotized
    >.< <-- eyes squeezed shut and scrunched together
    -.- <-- annoyed
    ^.^ or n.n <-- happy
    u.u <-- eyes closed
    $.$ <-- greed
    x.x <-- dead
    T.T or ;.; <-- crying, usually in a humorous sense. (T is an eye squeezed shut with a line of tears.)
    >.> followed by <.< (or vice versa) <-- shifty eyes

Sometimes the nose is a _ instead of a .

At one point it was possible to see differences in which kinds of smileys someone used, and how they used them, depending on where they first learned Internet social customs. There were regional dialects. Nowadays everyone is more homogeneous - though new smileys still get invented all the time. For example:

^O.O^ - a small dog with big eyes and a psychotic stare

This was inspired by an Italian greyhound named Jake, who became popular in the blogosphere for the way he stares.

Why are smileys important? There are some who say that smileys are superfluous and pointless and that they indicate laziness in coming up with ways to explain meaning with words. I say they are an important way to convey nonverbal communication over a text-only medium. Facial expressions and tone of voice are important in offline social interaction; so too are smileys for the same sorts of things online. Some find them annoying due to the way they are sometimes used. I say that they are great for conveying personality, and if they are annoying it means that the person using them is annoying.

Along with smileys, there are other non-word conventions. Examples of non-smiley punctuation:
    ? <-- "what?" "yes?" "elaborate please"
    ! <-- shock
    ... <-- skepticism, disapproval, disbelief, speechless

Exact meaning depends very heavily on context.

And then there are non-words that aren't punctuation. In some circles I'm notorious for being able to convey a huge amount of meaning by how I say "hmm." What it means depends on context, specific spelling variant ("hmm" vs. "Hmm" vs "hmmm" vs. "hmm..." vs. "hmm!" vs. "mmm" vs. "hrm" vs. "mmhmm" ...), and who it's coming from. Meaning tends to be highly individual.


Eric said...

I agree that smileys are an attempt to make up for the lack of facial expression in online communication. I really find them to be an interesting development in the evolution of online communication. Online communication lacks the capacity to detect moods possibly with phone communication and the forced-thought-time caused by the inherent delays in snailmail communications; this fosters misunderstanding. The smiley is a simple means of attempting to offset this problem.

Incidentally, you omitted my own favorite, the Cthulhu smiley: 8E

I'm not sure what the Cthulhu smiley really conveys, aside from "Your soul is about to be devoured by an alien creature of unimaginable horror from a limitless void outside your safe, sane, Euclidean frame of spacetime." Hm. All that in 2 ASCII characters... and some people say smileys are "lazy."


Nathan said...

I've changed my mind.

Duck is delicious.


(new translation is smiling but with eyes closed because you might hit me.)

Nathan said...

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Thanks for the post. Being a nuub, I didn't recognize a lot of those and wouldn't have had any idea of the real translation.

I find the smileys to be very helpful, especially when I'm posting to people who don't "know" me very well or on sites that get a lot of traffic. My tone doesn't always come across the way its intended so I've seen a few rabid freak-outs when my sarcasm wasn't recognized.

BTW, did you notice that Shawn's site recognizes different smileys and then renders them differently?

MWT said...

Yep, I saw. And I was actually going to write stuff about image smileys and animated smileys, but forgot. Maybe another time. Meanwhile though:
for Eric's perusal. :D (Not the text of the blog post, but the Cthulhu in it...)

Incidentally, I like both duck and mullet. I probably should've made that clear in the last post...

Random Michelle K said...


Actually, I still tend to fall back on the conventions we used way back in the day of BBSes (at least on our networks)

I always liked (EV) and (VEG) [evil grin and very evil grin]

I think some sort of mood set is necessary, especially for people like me who are naturally sarcastic, and tend to say things that sound utterly wrong if you don't get that I'm joking.

In other words, dry wit translates to words well, but goofy doesn't always cut it.

MWT said...

Ah yeah. Those are even more like regional dialects. I learned it with asterisks:

*evil grin*


A newer form that showed up around the same time as the anime smileys:

::evil grins::

... notice that it also stopped being nouns and started being actions. I still put asterisks around my action sequences out of longstanding habit.

Anonymous said...

I overuse them sometimes to try and communicate the tone of a statement. My favorite is:


In MSN IM (which I actually don't use, I'm on 3rd party software called Adium), I like the (6) devil face.

Random Michelle K said...

Actually, on our BBS network, actions took place in pointy brackets. That habit got broken quickly, and I replaced it with parentheses.


Nathan said...

It turns out Jeri's blog converts smileys too. Is there a plug-in or widget or whatever I can get that will do that on Blogger? I like it.

Megadeus said...

"Emoticon." My high-and-mighty word for "smiley."

When I use the Asian-style emoticons, I tend to think of the underscore as the mouth, rather than the nose. You can also see this in some of the wilder variants that are hard to type with a US keyboard. The space between the eyes is used as a mouth of various types. In my mind, that makes the period a "tiny, cute" mouth. Zephyr uses the period, but I prefer the "masculine" line-mouth.

Let me see if I can replicate one of those weirder smileys with HTML escape codes or copy/paste...

⊂( ゚ ヮ゚)⊃


(If you can't see these characters, you might try http://club.pep.ne.jp/~hiroette/en/facemarks/ or installing extra font packs, I guess.)

Tom said...

As Nathan and Michelle say, sarcasm or wit, if not recognized, can quickly be misinterpreted. Some way to say "grin" is helpful, indeed.

I wondered what you were trying to convey with the one eye bigger. Now I know. I'd never seen that one before.

And speaking of never seen, I may have invented one. :9 Tounge up, not down like :P and smiling. I meant licking my lips, yumm.

I didn't realize there were so... many... Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I thought it was a feature of Wordpress, but Michelle's doesn't convert to smiley pictures. Maybe it's just a function of the templates that Shawn and I have chosen - or maybe Michelle has reverse-engineered it.

Anne C. said...

I like the :9 one, Tom. Cute!

I have to agree that the non-sideways ones did orginate with anime folks. The first time I ever saw those was when I in college and had an anime friend who's emoticon was generally '''>_<''' ish, which was the squeezing eyes plus sweat beads flying off. I love the O.o because it instantly gives a comical feel of Eeep!
Personally, though, I stick with the simple :) :( ;) and :P all without a nose, which I think looks cuter.
I admit to being a bit smile happy in comments (much less so in blog posts) and though I try and restrain myself a bit, I also have come to terms with the fact that I actually do smile a lot in real life. So :P

As for actions, I like to put them in [] to distinguish them from () asides.

All in all, I like using supplementary communication techniques for online conversing because I find it more animated.

Random Michelle K said...

No reverse engineering here. Or there rather.

I haven't updated WordPress since summer, so that may be it.

Though you might well turn it off it I updated and it has it, as I'm rather fond of sideways smileys.

But I am weird.

MWT said...

I use Adium too. And Pidgin when I'm at work. :)

The list I put into my post were mainly the ones that I either personally use or commonly see. There are many, many others, and people have compiled gigantic dictionaries of them.

I much prefer plain text smileys to the vast majority of animated ones. The Yahoo ones were kind of amusing, until it turned out they couldn't be turned off (which might've changed; it's been a while since I've used Yahoo directly). I really like the ones at Hobgoblin.net and some of the Deviantart.com ones. But most of the rest just annoy me - they tend to add meanings that I don't want.

Anonymous said...

The animated ones (or graphic ones) work inconsistently across platforms when you're using a third party app like Adium, too.

My hub (on MSN) sends me any number of smileys that just come across as obscure text. I have to ask him what he was trying to send, and he describes it... pretty inefficient way to add tone & context to a conversation. Sigh.

Eric said...

Ah! A rendered Cthulhu smiley and the "drunk guys" smiley--both good ones. They had those on the Wizards' boards, too, when I used to hang out there.

Jim Wright said...

Damnit 8)

I've been offline for a couple of days and missed this.

I find this kind of stuff very interesting. The spontaneous generation of symbology to extend the bandwidth of online messaging is fascinating to me.