What does an emoticon mean?

Written by ann deiterich
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What does an emoticon mean?
Emoticons (emoticons image by stefanie van der vinden from Fotolia.com)

E-mail, text messages and instant messages are quickly becoming a primary means of communication for many people. How you say something conveys as much meaning as your words. Because verbal tone is missing in typed communication, the emoticon is designed to replace it.


Emoticons are keyboard symbols combined in a variety of ways to show feelings. Their name comes from combining the words "emotion" and "icon" (meaning a computer representation, in this case). Normally read from left to right, the emoticon looks like a face turned sideways. Normally, the colon (:) is used to represent the eyes of the emoticon and a hyphen (-) represents the nose. There are variations to these, and the hyphen is optional.

Happiness and Pleasure

There are several emoticons that express happiness: :-), :), :-], :] or :->. Typically, the most common emoticons, these hearken back to the ubiquitous, yellow smiley face of decades ago. Some word processing and instant messaging programs automatically convert these keystrokes into the actual image of a smiley face.

Unhappiness and Displeasure

Conversely, the emoticons :-(, :(, :-[, :[ and :-< are all used to show sadness or displeasure. Like their happy counterparts, word processing programs often convert these to the actual symbol they represent.

More Extreme Emotions

Beyond being happy, you can use emoticons to denote laughter: :-D and :D. The capital letter "D" simulates a wide smile with teeth. Most people recognise the digit "0" as symbolising a wide-open mouth. In combination with the eyes and nose, :-0 or :-o, is a recognised symbol for surprise or yelling. Using the zero or lower case letter "o," can indicate varying levels of the emotion. Adding the right bracket can show a frown, so >:-( or >:-0 represent very angry and unhappy or very angry and yelling, with the right arrow bracket standing in for angry eyebrows.

Indifference, Confusion and Sarcasm

Using the forward or back slashes represents confusion. A confused emoticon looks like :-\ or :-/. Some people use the letter "s" as the mouth to show confusion, :-s. The vertical line on the keyboard can be used to denote indifference, :-|, or it represents a deadpan sense of humour. The curve bracket is used as the mouth to show a leer or sarcastic grin, :-}, and the letter "p" is used to show sticking out your tongue playfully: :-p.

More Eyes

While the colon represents the emoticon's eyes, the semicolon represents a wink and can be used with an assortment of different mouths to refine the meaning: ;-) (plain wink and smile), ;-} and ;-p as more playful tones. Using the digit "8" and "B" represents wearing glasses or sunglasses: 8-), 8-] and 8->. The letter "x" used as the eyes indicates dead or unconscious. Knocked out dead becomes X-P while X-D means died laughing.

Other Facial Indicators and Emoticons

The asterisk can represent a kiss or a blush when used like :- or :). Using the letter "o" above the eyes represents a halo denoting innocence: o:-) or o;-} for a tongue-in-cheek depiction of innocence. The left arrow bracket and number 3 combine to create a heart: <3. This nonfacial emoticon is the abbreviation for love. <3 :-) can mean either I love to be happy or I love emoticons.

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