Since they started taking off in the 2010s, emojis have pretty much evolved into characters for a new millennial language (who knew you could convey so much through tiny pictures of food?) But the predecessors of the “picture characters” we know and use excessively today are older than you’d expect.
Before emojis, there were emoticons, facial expressions made with punctuation marks. The first emoticons appeared in an issue of Puck magazine, all the way back in 1881. The magazine published four “faces”—conveying joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment—and called them “typographical art.”
They were first used as a way of communicating emotions online in 1982. When it became difficult for people to tell the difference between jokes and serious posts on a Carnegie Mellon University digital message board, faculty member Scott Fahlman came up with a solution: Add the symbol :-) to denote humorous posts, and add the symbol :-( to serious ones. In his announcement about this proposal, he even specified readers to “read it sideways.”
So what about emojis, the little pictures that make texting so fun? Those were created in 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an engineer at the Japanese phone company, NTT Docomo. He was working on a way for customers to communicate through icons. The result was a set of 176 icons he called emoji. The name combines two Japanese words: “e” (picture) and “moji” (character). Kurita says that he drew inspiration for his emojis from manga, Chinese characters, and international signs for bathrooms.
Now, more than 1,800 emojis exist. The best part? We don’t need to tilt our heads sideways to understand them.
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