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Emoticons and emojis are today's way of talking. They've been described as "modern cave paintings", and a recent scientific study discovered that we react the same way to an emoticon as we do to a human face IRL. And the smiley face, in particular, is perfect for instantly revealing the mood of a sender, all in two simple keyboard strokes. But has the emoticon actually been around for centuries?
Literary critic and University of Chicago Press editor Levi Stahl thinks so. While studying the work of Robert Herrick, an English poet from the 17th century, he came across "To Fortune", first published in 1648:
Of course, this could just be an error or simply a colon inside the parentheses. But it does seem more than just sheer coincidence that the emoticon is placed after the words "smiling yet". Did Robert Herrick invent the smiley? What's certain is that there was no way he could have known he was writing something that would become a cornerstone of cybercommunication centuries later.
Herrick's proto-emoticon predates the most recent contender for first emoticon ever – the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. In an 1862 New York Times report of a speech by Lincoln, you'll spot a sideways winky:
Typo? Or a bored reporter or transcriber playing with communication? Either way, if the Herrick text proves to be authentic, poor ol' Abe's just been robbed of his place in emoticon history. Which is :(( for him.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot