Michael Quinion reminded me that Sept. 19 was the 25th anniversary of the smiley face. In his weekly online newsletter (available at http://www.worldwidewords.org) he wrote, “The :-) symbol, necessarily created from standard keyboard characters, was invented…by Scott E. Fahlman in a post on a bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University. It formed part of a thread on the way humorous remarks could be tagged to avoid misunderstandings. His message was brief, though a tad ungrammatical: ‘I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways.’” Mr. Fahlman is these days the Research Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon.
I remember being in New York City in 1982 when I first saw this innocuous, bulbous, caricature with two dots for eyes and a quarter-circle smile. The word emoticon hadn’t been invented, and an icon was something you’d find in a Russian Orthodox church.
The smiley face now has taken over as an icon of inanity. I was walking on the National Seashore at Wellfleet last week and stooped down to find, not a stone or shell, but a yellow rubber ball the size of a quarter. It had a smiley face on it. And the word “China.”
At this quarter-century mark, we can pause and think of Percy Bysshe Shelley writing, “My name is Ozymandias, kind of kings: / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” / Nothing remains: round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It would be ironic and sad if, centuries from now, we were remembered by little more than a vapid pie-face. On a non-biodegradeable ball from China. I hope something that I write lasts longer.