What Do the Different Smileys Mean?

The emoticon, a smiley face composed entirely of text symbols, has in its many forms become as closely tied to the Internet as the many acronyms it often accompanies in messages. For the well-versed, a smiley can completely set the tone of a message and help convey the writer's intent. For the uninitiated, however, smileys can be cryptic and nonsensical, providing more confusion than clarity.

Smiling emoticon
An emoticon smiley face.
credit: Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images

That First Smile

The first verifiable emoticon usage dates back to 1982, when pranksters posted a farcical warning about a mercury spill at Carnegie Mellon University on their digital message board. Without any means of recognizing the joke for what it was, several took the post at face value -- a classic example of a phenomenon that is today referred to as Poe's Law. Faculty member Scott E. Fahlman weighed in on the matter, proposing the use of two short character sequences to distinguish playful posts from serious ones: ":-)" for the playful and cheeky, ":-(" for the serious. Fahlman's suggestion caught on, giving birth to innumerable emoticons we now bat around casually on the Net. While similar symbol sequences have been seen throughout history, including in a poem in 1648 and in one of Abraham Lincoln's speeches, these instances can't be verified as genuine emoticons instead of quirky punctuation errors.

Orientation is Everything

All emoticons come in one of two orientations: horizontal or vertical. Which orientation is used can completely change the meaning of the symbols used in its construction. For example, a horizontally oriented emoticon would use "^" as a nose or or mouth, while a vertically oriented one would use it as a scrunched up eye during a wide smile. Understanding the orientation is an important key in deciphering any smiley.

The Eyes Have It

Emoticons are constructed from three primary parts: the eyes, mouth and extras. For horizontally oriented emoticons, the standard set of eyes is depicted with a colon, with a semicolon used as a winking variation. For example, a basic smile would be depicted as ":-)" while ";-)" would represent the winking version. Alternate horizontal eyes include "B" for sunglasses and "8" for wide eyes or one eye slightly wider than the other. Vertically aligned emoticons have a much wider range of eye choices, with the aforementioned "^" serving as a happy, scrunched up eye such as in "^^" or "@@" representing dizziness or confusion. Various other symbols, including some inspired by cartoons, include "$" representing greedy eyes. Sometimes Os can be used to represent a blank, surprised or unsettled expression, like "o.o" or "o.O" -- or periods can be used in smileys like ".." to depict a somewhat sad or depressed face. Winks can be depicted by including a "~" in the emoticon, like for example with "^~" to depict a playful wink.

Grinning Like a Shark

While eyes can set the tone more strongly in vertically oriented emoticons, the mouth can convey considerable meaning in horizontally oriented ones. Typically the mouth appears on the right side of the eyes, but can also be shown on the left side, changing the meaning of the emoticon. For example, ")" can be used to depict both a smile and a frown, as shown with ":)" and "):" -- the meaning depends entirely on location. Other commonly used mouths include "D" with the same rules, such as ":D" and "D:" respectively depicting a wide smile and unpleasant, gape-jawed disbelief respectively. The letter "O" can be used for ":O" to represent neutral surprise or disbelief. Vertically aligned emoticons are somewhat more limited, using "_" or "-" to depict neutral mouths and "." to depict pursed or puckered lips.

All the Extras

Primary context in emoticons comes from the eyes and mouth, but it's the little embellishments that can give them real character. The addition of noses, hair, brows and accessories can all add to the intended tone of an emoticon and give them a little flair. For example, you can add a nose to horizontally oriented emoticons with "^" or "-" which turns ":)" into ":-)" or ":^)" and adds a little fun to the mix. The "~" can be used in ":~(" or "~:^D" to respectively depict tears or wild hair. Using a ">" can be used in ">:^D" to add a pair of mischievous eyebrows or little horns, conveying impish intent behind your post. With a good imagination, you can use just about any symbols to add extra meaning to your emoticons or even create non-smiley emoticons, such as "@>-}--" depicting a rose.

Intention is Everything

The primary purpose of using an emoticon is to convey your message's intent more clearly, so make sure you're picking the right smiley for the occasion. Your choice can completely alter the perception of a message -- for example, look at these two sentences, which are basically identical outside of the emoticons used.

"It rained all day today. :~(" "It rained all day today. :^D"

The first sentence implies that the rain made the poster sad, while the second implied she likes the rainy weather. Using emoticons, you can change the tone and context of a message even if the words themselves are the same. Exercise good judgment when using emoticons, though -- quick instant message chats with a friend are appropriate places to use them but important memoranda or official documents are not.