When did the New York Times first use an emoticon?

Last week the New York Times ran this headline: “Twitter Study Tracks When We Are : )” That little emoticon printed in a venerated newspaper suggests growing acceptance of abbreviations and pictographic communication. Of course, the article is about the internet and technology, so a nod to common electronic communication is appropriate and light-hearted.

The CityRoom blog over at the New York Times pointed out that back in 1862, the paper used a ; ) to punctuate a speech given by President Abraham Lincoln. But was this emoticon? Ben Zimmer writes that modern audiences should use caution in interpreting old combinations of punctuation with colons and semicolons as emoticons.

Text messaging language and emoticons may be new because they’re electronic, but the abbreviation and word play that they rely on is very old indeed. Old word games called rebuses were very popular in greeting cards and notes to friends hundreds of years ago. The word rebus comes from the Latin phrase Non verbis, sed rebus which means “Not by words, but by things.” Rebuses can use images such as an eye to signify the word, I, and they also include abbreviations with letters. Back in the 1870s, young people who were dating would send each other escort cards to ask a potential girlfriend on a date. A playful, friendly card from that era read, “May I. C. U. Home?” The request sounds antiquated, but the language play is very familiar to today’s texting teens.

Do you use emoticons or abbreviations when texting? What do you think of it?

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