Sunday, April 13, 2014

The first emoticon?

We interrupt our blogging of Daniel Deronda to share breaking news: In reading some of Robert Herrick's poetry last night, I discovered what looks to be the first emoticon!

It appears at the end of the second line of "To Fortune," which was published in Hesperides in 1648:
Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I'll be
Patient in my necessity.
Laugh at my scraps of clothes, and shun
Me, as a fear'd infection;
Yet, scare-crow-like, I'll walk as one
Neglecting thy derision.
Lest it be an aberration in the edition I own, I checked it against the new, authoritative two-volume edition of Herrick's work edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly and published by Oxford University Press last year. The emoticon is there.

Herrick's poetry is rich in wit, so it's not entirely out of the bounds of possibility that this is something more than a punctuational oddity. If so, it would predate by more than two centuries the 1862 emoticon discovered in a New York Times transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln's speeches in 2009.

In honor of the discovery of Herrick's invention, we'll close by letting him raise a toast:
"The Coblers Catch"

Come sit we by the fires side;
And roundly drinke we here;
Till that we see our cheeks Ale-dy'd
And noses tann'd with Beere.


  1. The 1862 example looks more like a typo to me — just a reversal of the parenthesis and semicolon — but I think yours might be the real deal!

  2. Anonymous8:39 PM

    Punch magazine did a whole array of emoticons in the nineteenth century.

  3. Anonymous11:25 PM

    Neither is an emoticon. They are both instances of punctuation inside of parentheses rather than outside and we're just not used to seeing that.

  4. Hmm, there's the same collocation of a colon and a closed parenthesis (with that all-important open parenthesis a few words ahead) in "To Anthea," which appears on the page immediately following "To Fortune" in the 1648 edition. And it's also on the page that precedes "To Fortune," in a poem titled "To M. Denham, on his Prospective Poem." Was Herrick or his printer/publisher especially smiley-face-happy or could these just be instances of punctuation that now seem unusual to us? And, if the mention of "smiling" in "To Fortune" makes more natural the placement of a smiley face at the end of that line, is the smiley-face-lacking "I dare not beg a smile;" in "To Electra" (p. 272) a missed opportunity? : (

  5. Maggie Bandur6:56 PM

    There is nothing more sad to me than when someone is writing a physical letter (rare, I know) and draws an emoticon. Sideways. Which is ridiculous.

  6. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Anonymous at 11:25 PM is exactly right. The giveaway, at least in the Herrick example, is the colon later in the excerpt, which does NOT appear within parentheses -- that's because it's not part of a parenthetical phrase.

  7. Anonymous7:21 PM

    The ":)" punctuation is not really unusual to see in the period (with no evidence of being used as emoticons). As Bonnie notes above it appears throughout the book, including the second page of verse: "To read my Booke the Virgin shie / May blush, (while Brutus standeth by:)"
    If only it had been a semi-colon, right?

    (BTW, I'm looking at a scan of the 1648 edition on Early English Books Online.)

  8. Anonymous5:01 AM

    Not a typo. I spotted the same thing in a Maltese translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.