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Was the emoticon created in 1648?

- April 14th, 2014

Blogger Levi Stahl believes he may have found the first use of the emoticon. And it’s in a 1648 poem?

In a post on his blog, Stahl writes that 17th century English lyric poet Robert Herrick uses what appears to be a smiley face in the second line of his poem To Fortune.

Robert Herrick

Sketch of Robert Herrick. (Wikimedia Commons/The Hawthorne readers/Edward Everett Hale/HO)

The poem appears in his collection Hesperides.

As you can see in the screenshot below, the poem’s second line ends with a “:)” – which considering is preceding by the phrase “smiling yet” may, in fact, not be a typo:

To Fortune

“To Fortune.” (Screengrab of a portion of Page 252 of from the e-book version of “Hesperides: The Poems and Other Remains of Robert Herrick Now First Collected”)

But then again maybe it was. Or perhaps it was a publication decision and not one by Herrick himself. This above edition was edited by William Carew Hazlitt and published by John Russell Smith in 1869. However, this earlier publication of the poem from 1823, edited by Lord Thomas Maitland Dundrennan, doesn’t have brackets around “smiling yet” and uses a semi-colon instead of a colon:

To Fortune

“To Fortune.” (Screengrab of a portion of Page 51 of an 1823 edition of the e-book version of “The Works of Robert Herrick Volume Second”)

Hard to say what Herrick had in his original manuscript as even this reprint came out 175 years after the poem was written. Perhaps Herrick did include the smiley face and Lord Dundrennan though it was a mistake and changed the punctuation to something more traditional.

However, even if the emoticon was from the 1869 edition, it’s still pretty old. In his blog, Stahl pointed to a New York Times story  about a Times transcript of an Abraham Lincoln speech from 1862 that appears to use a winky face. But as a commenter pointed out, that one was likely a typo where the bracket and semi-colon were accidentally transposed.

But what do you think? Is the emoticon in Herrick’s poem legitimate?

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