An online debate broke out earlier this week over two otherwise unremarkable lines in a 1648 poem by the English poet Robert Herrick:
The couplet includes something that most modern readers would immediately recognize, in another context, as a smiley-face emoticon.
Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Scott Fahlman has a unique stake in the debate. He's widely credited with originating the use of "smileys" in BBS and email communications during the early 1980s.
Does the generally accepted "inventor" of the smiley think it's possible Herrick had the same idea more than three centuries before he did?
"Maybe," Fahlman said. "It could be just a typo. It could be that in those days the typography wasn’t really settled yet. He might have meant ‘this is a break in the paragraph, there should be a colon here.’ "
"It’s hard to hop in the time machine and go back and ask," Fahlman said. "The one thing I will say is I don’t think many of the readers would have looked at that and said ‘smiley face!’ even though the word ‘smiling’ is nearby. If it was meant as a little comment or a joke, either by the poet or by the typesetter, it might’ve been kind of a private joke. Not many of the readers would have picked up on that."
Then again, as Fahlman has previously acknowledged, there's always been a certain inevitability about the idea of representing facial expressions typographically. In a post on his faculty website, Fahlman quotes Vladimir Nabokov, who once told an interviewer: "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question."
Though he admits his creation is sometimes prone to misuse and overuse, Fahlman believes the smiley serves a real linguistic — if not literary — purpose.
"In great satirical literature, of course, you don’t want a smiley face. Half the fun is leaving the user guessing, for a while at least, about whether you’re really serious," Fahlman said. "But when most of us are writing email to friends, it’s not great satirical literature."
Fahlman won't take credit for the many variations on his archetype, but says he wishes he'd been the one to think up the version that substitutes a capital 'O' for the close-parenthesis [ thus :-O ].
"Kind of like the Edvard Munch painting of 'The Scream,'" Fahlman said. "That's an emotion that, many times a day, I want to convey."