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Emoticons and Our Inner Ambrose Bierces ;)

Emoticons and Our Inner Ambrose Bierces ;)

In her blog post “Why You Should Stop Worrying and Start Using Emoticons,” Anne Trubek defends the use of emoticons:

A punctuation purist would claim that emoticons are debased ways to signal tone and voice, something a good writer should be able to indicate with words. But the contrary is true: The history of punctuation is precisely the history of using symbols to denote tone and voice. Seen in this way, emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark. And despite the oft-repeated story that Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman invented the smiley and the frown face  in 1982, the history of emoticons goes back much further.

In 1887, Ambrose Bierce wrote an essay, “For Brevity and Clarity,” suggesting ways to alter punctuation to better represent tone. He proposed a single bracket flipped horizontally for wry smiles, “to be appended, with the full stop, to every jocular or ironical sentence.”

If “emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark,” and Ambrose Bierce suggested a j/k mark more than a century ago, why hasn’t there been a standard print punctuation mark developed that is the equivalent of ;)? (And if Ambrose Bierce—master of prose humor—felt a need for it, then presumably it’s not simply a matter of failing to hit the adequately jocular tone by word choice alone.)

But perhaps the question is not simply why/how emoticons and other internet abbreviations developed. The number of quick and informal interactions online, the online conversations that once would have taken placed in person or in longer letters, the repetitive and casual nature of so many of these conversations that calls for a standardized “wtf” or “lol,” the mechanics of typing—it hardly seems surprising that a :) would develop so quickly in such a flexible medium.

But… given that it was Bierce, of all people, calling for these punctuation marks earlier, does the internet’s quick adoption of these marks suggest that we’ve all revealed ourselves to be wannabe Ambrose Bierces? That it was preferable to make tongue-in-cheek jokes that could be seriously misunderstood—and develop a whole new set of punctuation to accommodate this tendency—than just to write what we had to communicate?

In an internet of lolcats, this may not be surprising. But the speed with which these marks have become prevalent in online culture may also suggest something about the high and widespread value we place on humor, and not simply reflect our informality or laziness. :)



Thanks for this delightful post.   Since I wrote my first books on Ambrose Bierce, I find it hilarious that it ties back to what I'm up to now, via the emoticom (and complaints about the corporate consolidation of media, with the Hearst empire for which he worked AND protested).    I recently, coincidentally, participated in a NPR show in San Francsico on Bierce, celebrating a one-man show that re-imagines Bierce coming back again as an African American.   Interesting!  Here's the url for the show, and thanks for your post:


That sounds like a fascinating show! Wow, I'd love to see it... (unfortunately, I've been traveling without much access to internet, but will look forward to listening to your NPR show when I get home!)

Bierce seems like an interesting figure for tons of reasons (he must have been fun to work on!), but I've been thinking particularly about his ongoing relevancy / prominence.... it seems like he's been doing pretty well, on the whole! I was just reading some of Charles Lamb's (wonderful) essays in preparation for my comprehensive exams, which was making me think about whether perhaps nonfiction doesn't tend to age particularly well--or at least the material that is often taught gets winnowed away more ruthlessly than other genres.

But Bierce does seem to stand out, and not just for his humor--some of his material (emoticons?) seems not just relevant, but practically clairvoyant.... !