When did the New York Times first use an emoticon?

Last week the New York Times ran this headline: “Twitter Study Tracks When We Are : )” That little emoticon printed in a venerated newspaper suggests growing acceptance of abbreviations and pictographic communication. Of course, the article is about the internet and technology, so a nod to common electronic communication is appropriate and light-hearted.

The CityRoom blog over at the New York Times pointed out that back in 1862, the paper used a ; ) to punctuate a speech given by President Abraham Lincoln. But was this emoticon? Ben Zimmer writes that modern audiences should use caution in interpreting old combinations of punctuation with colons and semicolons as emoticons.

Text messaging language and emoticons may be new because they’re electronic, but the abbreviation and word play that they rely on is very old indeed. Old word games called rebuses were very popular in greeting cards and notes to friends hundreds of years ago. The word rebus comes from the Latin phrase Non verbis, sed rebus which means “Not by words, but by things.” Rebuses can use images such as an eye to signify the word, I, and they also include abbreviations with letters. Back in the 1870s, young people who were dating would send each other escort cards to ask a potential girlfriend on a date. A playful, friendly card from that era read, “May I. C. U. Home?” The request sounds antiquated, but the language play is very familiar to today’s texting teens.

Do you use emoticons or abbreviations when texting? What do you think of it?


  1. Ionizer Air Purifier -  October 20, 2011 - 4:35 am

    It is easy and fast to use them. Even the ancient civilizations have used symbols for communication. I am thinking about hieroglyphs used by Egyptians.

  2. Malik -  October 19, 2011 - 9:14 am

    Dude, u g :) t 2 use dem em :) c ;) ti :) ns when sms’ing and such. It saves u m :) ney, is cute, and is c :) :) l! :) :( ;( ;)

  3. Malik -  October 19, 2011 - 9:10 am

    Dude, u g:)t 2 use dem em:)c;)ti:)ns when sms’ing and such. It saves u m:sney, is cute, and is c:):)l! :) :0 :( :S ;( ;)

  4. A-18-K -  October 12, 2011 - 6:58 am

    I don’t mind abbreviations in text messages, when they are done to a certain extent and when you mean what you say. I think way too many people use LOL way too much. There’s no way all those times people say LOL! That they really laughed out loud, I mean, I’ve watched some sober, blah looking people type it out on their phones and press send. It’s become such a “text filler” that I don’t even take it seriously anymore.
    And when people put all sorts of abbreviations in emails or letters, that drives me batty. I much prefer when they just let the abbreviations alone for their text messages. And please – when speaking face to face, it’s a real bugger when you say “OMG!” Or “LOL!” I mean, we really don’t mind if you just express yourself in real words – quit acting like some programmed computer…over wired people these days.
    A cute little smiley here and there in letters and stuff is fine, but I’m saying just for your sake – that when you fill your letters with abbreviations and letters that aren’t capitalized, you lower other people view of your intelligence and respect – whether or not they themselves are aware of it…it’s sort of like some involuntary action that takes place in the brain.
    Just try to keep a balance with the abbreviations, and none in speech. And remember punctuation is important! No running all sorts of sentences together with only spaces between them. And thousands of exclamation points that’s – loopy.
    I like the smileys though, sometimes they convey feelings you can’t in words – and they’re fun. ;) Especially that little guy.

  5. Archon -  October 8, 2011 - 3:18 pm

    @ narenda fulwaria

    If you are referring to an American electronic company, with a branch in the city of Delhi, the original name, when it was producing mechanical machines was, National Cash Register.

    @ Annette

    You make a good point. Emoticons, by definition, convey soft, warm, fuzzy emotions rather than crisp, clean, hard information. To paraphrase a television comedian, “Who cares less about what you feel about something than you do??? EVERYBODY!!!”

  6. Arcanis -  October 6, 2011 - 2:53 pm

    <(") :'

  7. MEGAN -  October 6, 2011 - 6:34 am


  8. Archon -  October 5, 2011 - 8:24 pm

    @ Sherryyu

    The card does not ask May I see you AT home? It asks, May I see you home? That is, to accompany her from here to there. To ask to see her AT home would have required a much different, more formal card, and involved a whole different kettle of etiquette.

    Speaking of which, what did the housewife say to the kettle, in only seven letters? O I C U R M T

  9. Svenjamin -  October 5, 2011 - 3:59 pm

    Emoticons are a weak and ineffective form of communication.

  10. mhood1 -  October 5, 2011 - 10:04 am

    Remember the TV show “Concentration”? Players would try to match spaces on a puzzle board two at a time. Each match corresponded to a prize that was added the player’s list, and revealed two portions of a rebus. At any point in the game a player could try and solve the rebus, even before all the spaces were revealed. If the player successfully solved the rebus, he or she would win all the prizes on their list.

  11. Annette -  October 5, 2011 - 2:14 am

    I don’t see the need for emoticons. What’s wrong with the tools we have to communicate: words, sentences, punctuation marks?

  12. Carlitos -  October 5, 2011 - 12:30 am


    Makes me think that in spite of our self-proclaimed sophistication and intellect that we still are quite primitive. ‘Twas only yesteryear we were courting like songbirds… What will tomorrow hold, if there are many more days?

  13. Charles McKinney -  October 4, 2011 - 3:55 pm

    This article tends to reassure the proverbs: “there is nothing new under the sun” and “what goes around comes back around” Hip Hip Hooray for emoticons!

  14. punctuation_lover -  October 4, 2011 - 2:06 pm

    “They are fine to some extent! I sometimes get annoyed when I see them too much on one note please grow up already!! I just think they are a waste of time!”

    As are exclamation marks…

  15. kj -  October 4, 2011 - 2:01 pm


  16. kj -  October 4, 2011 - 2:01 pm


  17. kj -  October 4, 2011 - 2:01 pm


  18. TETO -  October 4, 2011 - 1:42 pm

    EMOTICONS what a great word. At first it didn’t taste so good to say but with practice it tastes better N better. Now……… how D I ‘member it?

  19. sherryyu -  October 4, 2011 - 12:57 pm

    to christa’s comment, “May I. C. U. at home” meames: “May i see you at home”, got it? if u have any other questions just ask and we’ll answer

  20. REBUSES | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  October 4, 2011 - 12:54 pm

    [...] ‘Rebuses’ impression of some Old Times ‘emoticon’ — might of led to the Cessation of [...]

  21. ivan -  October 4, 2011 - 12:39 pm

    thats grate :)

  22. Lynette -  October 4, 2011 - 12:32 pm

    William Steig published a couple of books featuring rebuses and clever sketches; CDB! (See the Bee!) and CDC! (See the Sea!). I loved them as a kid, and my parent’s got a kick out of them as well.

  23. FFWF -  October 4, 2011 - 12:31 pm

    Just so you know, the emoticons in the blog post are displaying at the far left of each line rather than in the spot they’re meant to be.

  24. Archon -  October 4, 2011 - 11:49 am

    @ Christa

    It means, “May I see you home?”

    Beyond that, it is a reminder of days when interpersonal, especially intergender, relations and etiquette were highly stylized and highly socio/sexually restrictive. A gentleman did not simply walk up to a young lady and speak to her without first being introduced. He could not take for granted the opportunity to accompany her from a social milieu to her home. So, in this case, he asked her, by way of this amusing little card, if he might have “half a date”. Almost as public as placing a notice in a newspaper, an act which was also performed, the card would be shown to family and friends to show the name of the man, give an idea of his financial/social station, display his creative social abilities and prove that his intentions were honorable and transparently above-board.

    I toured a plantation outside Charleston SC which included a small mirror set in the wall beneath a small table in the front hall. We were told that this was used to ensure that the ladies exiting the house, were not showing even an ankle. If a man were to see even a lady’s ankle, they were married the same day. Not exactly like today, but, that was the way they did things back then.

  25. Marco -  October 4, 2011 - 11:08 am


  26. mirjo -  October 4, 2011 - 10:58 am

    Short cuts make the writer seem like childish imbeciles for the most part. Overall a message loaded with “shortcuts” and no punctuation is very difficult to read. What’s sad is that it’s becoming an acceptable way to communicate! It is interesting to know that what’s “new” is actually “old!” Few things are invented for the first time this many years into civilization. Most, if not all ideas are built on something that has come before. Interesting piece.

  27. bholland -  October 4, 2011 - 10:57 am

    Christa, read the sentence out loud and you will understand.

  28. narendra fulwaria -  October 4, 2011 - 10:23 am

    what is the full name of N C R DELHI

  29. Scott -  October 4, 2011 - 10:21 am

    This page renders incorrectly in Internet Explorer. “Twitter Study Tracks When We Are (Smile)” renders as “Twitter Study Tracks (Smile) When We Are”. “Want to learn more about ‘:(‘ and ‘;)’ ?” renders as “Want to ‘:(‘ ‘;)’ learn more about and?”

  30. Jonàs -  October 4, 2011 - 10:15 am

    Why the dot after I?

  31. Scott -  October 4, 2011 - 10:11 am

    You think this was novel in the 1800s? Google “venez souper a sans souci”. Frederick the Great was doing this a century earlier.

  32. Thayer -  October 4, 2011 - 10:04 am

    All of your smileys are left-justified for some reason. I assume the sentences should say “Twitter Study Tracks When We :D”, “…the paper use a ;) to punctuate a speech…”, and “Want to learn more about :( and ;)?” respectively. That’s not how they appear, and it’s pretty confusing at first and second glance.

  33. Gene -  October 4, 2011 - 8:16 am

    The Freemasons have been using abbrevs for a long time, well over 400 years! Perhaps as long as 600 years!

  34. Rickedy Rick -  October 4, 2011 - 7:53 am

    Well, I’ll be flugnoobered! Dang rang tootin’ way to woo a pretty lass back then! Those old fogeys sure knew how to romance! They even asked their best girl if she would “go steady”! Now that gets the ole ticker palpatating! Oh my gravy! Back when I was a chid back in the 1800s, we used to give girls a woodcut that said U.R.A.Q.T.! That would get them to say yes to your invite to the Saturday night high school dance!

  35. Ricardo Mejia -  October 4, 2011 - 7:11 am

    to Sophia:

    For some weird reason, the smileys are off place in the article.
    That confusing line you mentioned should read:

    “Twitter Tracks When We Are (smiley face)”

    and now it makes sense.

    Later on, it says “…(winking face) the paper used a to punctuate…”
    it should be “…the paper used a (winking face) to punctuate…”

    and finally, there’s another that says: “Want to (frowning face) (winking face) learn more about and ?”

    it should read: “Want to learn more about (frowning face) and (winking face)?”

  36. Vikhaari -  October 4, 2011 - 7:09 am

    Yes. Love them–all the time taking lecture notes and at other writng pieces, even though I am yet to use them–:) [cannot say first because I used one just now at other ... "Emoticons words symbols or what?" article.]

  37. Ashley -  October 4, 2011 - 7:05 am


  38. Ashley -  October 4, 2011 - 7:05 am


  39. Rhett -  October 4, 2011 - 7:04 am

    “Twitter Tracks When We Are :)” The emoticon is misplaced in this font.

    “May I see you home?” is “Might I escort you to your house?”

  40. Ashley Gomez -  October 4, 2011 - 7:04 am

    this is good to know I luv emoticons =) =D =P ;)

  41. RC -  October 4, 2011 - 5:03 am

    In reply to Christa of October 3rd at 5:49 pm,

    “May I see you home?”

  42. kate -  October 4, 2011 - 1:22 am

    I remember as a kid putting

    I L B C N U
    (I’ll be seein’ you)

    on the backs of letters we sent to friends and family.

  43. Hannah -  October 4, 2011 - 1:17 am

    Neat. I personally think lots of people overuse smileys( including me). They just don’t have the same effect as a real smile but we contınuisly use them when we are chattıng as a poor substitute… However I guess theres nothıng better


  44. Michele -  October 4, 2011 - 12:45 am

    A bit like rebuses? word and letter pics???

  45. Radhika -  October 3, 2011 - 10:23 pm

    :) :( <3 :P ;)

  46. Katharine -  October 3, 2011 - 9:01 pm

    The article should say “Twitter study tracks when we are :)”

    All your emoticons are in the wrong place. You should have disabled the bbc code for this page, or whatever it is that automatically turns a colon-parenthesis into a :)

  47. Nats -  October 3, 2011 - 8:03 pm

    emoticons are fun..They sometimes convey messages clearly.

  48. Scott -  October 3, 2011 - 6:55 pm

    i use them, and i think it’s an easier way of expressing your feelings.

  49. :) ;) :D -  October 3, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    Wow!!! pretty interesting. :) idk y we use shortcuts. but they r kinda kool.
    i txt on the net so i always use txt tlk. its lik an evryday thing 4 me. 2 kool.

  50. Número uno -  October 3, 2011 - 5:56 pm

    Purple prose-emoticons…whatever !
    The prose and cons.
    And there you have it – stat!

  51. Christa -  October 3, 2011 - 5:49 pm

    What the fudge does “May I. C. U. Home?” mean?

  52. Jake -  October 3, 2011 - 5:33 pm

    awesome you learn something new everyday at dictionary.com :)

  53. Lefty -  October 3, 2011 - 4:47 pm

    They are fine to some extent! I sometimes get annoyed when I see them too much on one note please grow up already!! I just think they are a waste of time!

  54. Sophia -  October 3, 2011 - 3:32 pm

    I find the second paragraph remarkably difficult to read, and I’m not sure what the headline “Twitter Tracks (Smiley Face) When We Are” is trying to say.

    I leave this article feeling irritated and not at all informed. It had the potential to be quite intriguing.

  55. FancyPants -  October 3, 2011 - 3:31 pm


  56. Bobbi D. -  October 3, 2011 - 3:30 pm

    I think smilies are awesome! :) “May I.C.U Home?” sounds so fun, must’ve been exciting to get one of those cards back then! ;)

  57. Riley -  October 3, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    Woww! I didn’t know that! cool.

  58. annastacia -  October 3, 2011 - 1:06 pm

    i don’t use abbreviations when i text but i do find it interesting to learn that abbreviations were used way before computers and texting.


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