On April 12 1979, Kevin McKenzie of Arpanet’s MsgGroup made the following suggestion:
Perhaps we could extend the set of punctuation we use, i.e.: If I wish to indicate that a particular sentence is meant with tongue-in-cheek, I would write it so:
"Of course you know I agree with all the current administration's policies -)."
The '-)' indicates tongue-in-cheek.
At that time, the initial response was less than enthusiastic and the idea sank into oblivion.
Two years later, Scott Fahlman, a professor from the University of Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) sent this message:
19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use
From the Fahlman message, the phenomenon expanded at great speed. First, it propagated to other universities and research laboratories, then worldwide. A few months later, tens of variants began to appear in messages, becoming more and more elaborate.
However, not everybody agreed that Scott or McKenzie were the true inventors of this system. Some chronologies assure that PLATO educational system users began using smiley characters probably as early as 1972.
The main problem was that the original messages in which the smiley was invented had been lost… until September 2002. After a significant effort to locate it, the original post made by Fahlman on the CMU CS general Bboard was retrieved by Jeff Baird from an October 1982 Vax backup tape. To our knowledge, the McKenzie message has never been retrieved. —FIRST SMILEYS (APRIL 1979) (old-computers.com)
The full archives of the MSGGROUP discussion used to be available at www.tcm.org, but that link is now defunct. Much of the site (I don’t know how much) is still archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20020209153802/www.tcm.org/msggroup/.
At any rate, I pulled McKenzie’s original post and the first response, and did a preliminary search for the text string “-)” that came up negative. I used this subject for a class years ago.
McKenzie says “This idea is not mine, but stolen from a Reader’s Digest article I read long ago on a completly different subject.” While McKenzie himself seems to have vanished into the ether, I did at one point head to the library where I looked at microfilm copies of several years of Reader’s Digest articles. I found one interesting article about the messages a family leaves on a refrigerator, but I couldn’t imagine how McKenzie could get “-)” from that.
In his book Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov describes, with some amusement, journalist Alden Whitman sending him questions in April 1969. According to Nabokov, of the dozen or so questions, only three of N’s answers made it into the New York Times article. He suspects that the unpublished answers will appear as a future “Special to the New York Times.” (Here’s a link to what seems to be a transcript of the article.)
When asked, “How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?”, Nabokov writes,
I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile–some sort of a concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question. (133-4)
I am fairly sure that Reader’s Digest exerpted Nabokov’s book… if I weren’t up to my neck in unrelated work, I’d try to dig up that reference.
(Other sources have noted Nabokov’s “supine round bracket,” but I don’t think I have seen anyone make the connection between McKenzie and Nabokov. So I really should turn up the citation.)
McKenzie’s contribution is often overlooked now because, well, it was overlooked when he originally made it… but since his suggestion was for “tongue in cheek,” not a “smiley,” it’s probably inaccurate to use MacKenzie’s post to indicate “the first smiley”. I think “-)” for “tongue in cheek” probably failed because it’s a literal depiction of a metaphor. The symbol represents a metaphor, which represents an ironic, detached mode of speaking. The “:-)” figure is an icon that represents something far more immediate and informative. As much as I hate to quote the lyrics to “It’s a Small World After All,” it’s probably true that ‘A smile means friendship to everyone,” while I wouldn’t expect speakers of other languages to understand what “tongue in cheek” is supposed to mean.