Index Page of James Marshall’s Emoticons List
n the early 1990s, a man named James Marshall took it upon himself to create the Canonical Smiley (and 1-Line Symbol) List. By 2008, he had compiled 2231 smilies, covering a wide range of emoticons from the standard happy and sad smileys to the obscure like an Englishman with a cup of tea and Vomiting Pope. An artifact from the Web 1.0 era, this site chronicles the early usage of text-based emoticons when we didn’t have anything else but only text to convey emotions. Curious about how the collection came to be, we got in touch and asked Mr. Marshall a few questions.
Q: When did you start collecting the smilies?
A: I don’t remember exactly anymore, but it looks like I had a list by late 1994.
Q: Where did you look to find them?
A: Wherever I could find them on the internet back then. I think I used Usenet newsgroups mostly, but there may have been some on the web. I also accepted contributions from individuals who would send me ones they knew of that were not on the list.
Q: What motivated you to start this project?
A: Basically, I saw requests for smiley dictionaries now and then, and the responses would offer a number of different compilations, none of which seemed to be the same and all of which seemed to repeat a lot of the same smileys. I thought things would be a lot easier if there were a single compilation that could reduce, or hopefully eliminate, that redundancy. I took all of the major/larger lists I could find back then and put them together, with all the definitions for a single emoticon together, so that no given symbol appeared twice.
Q: As a specialist on Usenet-era emoticons, what do you think about the emerging emojis (japanese inspired picture icons) in mobile messaging?
A: I don’t know too much about it, but in general, it seems to be a good development. It can be hard to show emotion, tone of voice, etc. in written text, and I think emoticons originally came about to help put some of that into text. Moving towards a larger range of small pictures for all sorts of things, probably makes it easier to put those types of feelings into the writing.
Q: What do you think about other unicode-based pictures like ASCII art? Would you ever include them on your list?
A: In general, I like those, too. I think they normally need a non-proportional (uniformly spaced) font to work though, and might not appear correctly without that. But they allow more freedom to create images by allowing more lines of text in the picture. Of course, that also vastly increases the number of possible combinations you can have, and there was no way I could compile that. By limiting myself to one line of text, I thought I had a reasonable chance of compiling the majority of single-line emoticons people were likely to see or use.
Q: Have you noticed emoticon use changing over time?
A: To me, it looks like there are two main trends. One is that text emoticons are giving way to graphical ones like the emoji you mentioned earlier. In some places, text emoticons you type will automatically be converted to image versions. In others, I think you can choose directly from a set of graphical emoticons. Of course, not every place does this and text emoticons can still be used, but I think the general trend is towards using images rather than text now.
The second is that the use of text emoticons seems to be declining. If this perception is correct, part of the explanation could be the increasing use of graphical emoticons noted above. But it also could be that our reading and writing skills are improving with practice over time. If text emoticons were meant to help us put non-verbal cues like emotion and tone of voice into text communications, then the better we become at writing clearly enough to get those cues across -- and interpreting such cues correctly when we’re reading -- the less likely we will be to use text emoticons to help. I think emoticons will still have a place in writing though, especially in more fun and less formal communications.
Q: What will the emoticons of the future look like?
A: I don’t know. But it seems like we’ve generally moved from text symbols (the old style emoticons) to image/graphic symbols (the newer emoji you mentioned). Both are static though, as far as I know, so perhaps the next move is towards animated graphical icons?
Q: Thank you for answering these questions, we really appreciate it!
A: You’re welcome, and thanks for your interest in my smiley compilation.
While the list has not been updated since 2008, James Marshall maintains his smiley compilation on his personal homepage. The interview was conducted over email between September 15th and September 22nd, 2011.