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  • Gail Malcolm

The history of the emoji

The history of the emoji

For as long as humans have been able to communicate, we have used symbols and imagery to communicate – cave paintings, hieroglyphics, emojis… Like any piece of artwork or word choice, the emoji has given us a way to change the perspective of a message.

Sometimes a simple “😊” can take the edge off what seems like a serious message or even enhance the importance of one, depending on what you’re trying to say.

For any Millennial or Gen Z, using the right emoji will be second nature but where did it all begin? Let’s explore the history of the emoji:

The Emoticon

There is some argument as to when the emoji’s predecessor was first established. Some say the first “: - )” and “:- (“ were first used on the PLATO IV computer system in 1972 but others would argue that 1982 is their true year of origin, when Scott Fahlman used them on a message board to distinguish what was and was not a joke.

Scott Fahlman emoticon useage

However, we could probably go back even further to find when the first emoji was used, all the way back to 1862 when The New York Times published a transcription of one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, where there is a line that reads “(applause and laughter ;)”. Is this the first emoji or a genuine typo? We’re swaying towards the typo…

Almost 20 years later and we’re a little bit closer to finding the first emoticons in a magazine in 1881:

Emojis in print 1881

These are a little more like the emojis we know today!

Fast forward to 1972 when Franklin Loufrani trademarked a yellow smiley logo that was used to mark good news in the French newspaper France Soir. Loufrani would then go onto to establish the Smiley Company with his son, Nicholas, in 1996. Nicholas would go on to design hundreds of the first copyrighted emoticons! These would appear in the Smiley Dictionary in the early noughties:

Franklin Loufrani  smiley face

Can you believe there were over 3,000 of these?

The Emoji

While the emoticon was having its heyday in the early noughties, the emoji was in its infancy but they were still a world away from what they now look like! First used on Japanese mobile phones in 1997, may we introduce the first emojis:

Emojis on Japanese mobile phone, 1997

It wasn’t until 2010 that emojis began to overtake emoticons when they were added to mobile operating systems and we have been emoji mad ever since!

Emoji Facts

  • World Emoji day is held on the 17th of July every year as the Apple calendar emoji has it’s date set to July 17

  • In 2015 “😂” was named the Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionary

  • In the same year, the American Dialect Society named “🍆” as the Most Notable Emoji. (We wonder why…)

  • In 2016, the emoji took to the stage when a musical about them opened in Los Angeles before the emoji moved to the big screen in 2017 with The Emoji Movie


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