While attending the WCF Davos Forum in March, I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Scott E. Fahlman, widely hailed as “father of the first smiley emoticon in 1982.” As it happens, though, there have been other challengers to that claim – the New York Times once ran a story citing an excerpt from an Abraham Lincoln speech in 1862 that may have had a smiley inserted. Now, though, writer and editor Levi Stahl claims he may have discovered one of the earliest emoticons of all – a line in the poem “To Fortune” by 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, first published in 1648.
“In reading some of Robert Herrick’s poetry last night, I discovered what looks to be the first emoticon!” Stahl announces. “It appears at the end of the second line of ‘To Fortune,’ which was published in Hesperides in 1648.” And he quotes the poem as follows:
Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.
Laugh at my scraps of clothes, and shun
Me, as a fear’d infection;
Yet, scare-crow-like, I’ll walk as one
Neglecting thy derision.
This precise punctuation doesn’t appear in every version of the poem – for instance, here’s one that omits the brackets entirely. But Stahl states that: “I checked it against the new, authoritative two-volume edition of Herrick’s work edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly and published by Oxford University Press last year. The emoticon is there.”
Could it be so? As Stahl points out, if any English poet of that time is likely to have been witty and playful enough to have inserted smileys into his work, then Herrick is. But it might be more accurate, and just to the achievements of our forebears, to point out that the emoticon is just a modern variation of a practice that goes back as far as Egyptian hieroglyphics and medieval manuscript illuminations, and which only came back into fashion courtesy of the new possibilities – and limitations – of digital communications technology. And just to drive the point home, here’s a classic piece of fun expressive poetic typography dated to 1905, from German comic poet Christian Morgenstern. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the “Nightsong of the Fish“: