Emoticon from 1862?


I'm here at TED2009, sitting next to Jennifer 8. Lee, a reporter and blogger for the New York Times. She showed me this image from an 1862 scan of a Lincoln speech that appears to contain an emoticon.

In the transcription of President Lincoln’s speech, which added comments about applause and shouts from the audience was this line:

“… there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and you, that I have found nothing in the Constitution against.”

Bryan Benilous, who works with historical newspapers at Proquest, said the team felt the “;)” after the word “laughter” was an emoticon, more than a century before emoticons became a widespread concept.

Could it be? Was this just a typo, a mistake, or was the reporter, transcriber or typesetter having a bit of sly fun?


  1. It’s not an emoticon; only a very silly person would suggest otherwise.

    It is clearly a parenthetical comment, with a semicolon to indicate a pause in the clause.

  2. It’s an orthography error.

    Before the semi-colon dropped out of general use, it was used to separate the items on a list. I suspect the reporter got confused by the “and” that followed the (applause and laughter) stage direction and used it as a sort-of Oxford Comma. At which point the usual confusion about what to do when there’s two consecutive punctuation marks kicked in and he made the wrong decision.

    Notice how the second time there’s a stage direction, he makes the peculiar decision to put the period inside the bracket instead of outside it. I suspect he wasn’t aiming for “one-eyed smiley pirate emoticon” there.

  3. Karl Jones is correct. It was quite common at that time to include a comma or semicolon before the closing parenthesis if the clause’s grammar suggested it.

  4. It was a transcript of the speech written after the fact. How exactly would you convey an emoticon in a live performance? Is someone suggesting that Lincoln conspicuously smiled and winked at the audience, and this is how the stenographer recorded it?

  5. Oh GMAFB.

    Are the qualifications for working with historical papers limited to “can surf web”, “2+ years IM, MSN or AIM preferred” and “can use scanner and view images on computer”???

    I wonder what the experts think of that mysterious “(” emoticon earlier in the text. Perhaps it is symbolic of an umbrella or shield (President as protector)? After all cultural concepts change over time. I know this because I am a Historical Expert, having lived through some of it and also read stuff in books and online.

  6. I don’t think there would be any confusion or debate if the stenographer had not put an unnecessary space after the word “laughter” as s/he does throughout. Still, kinda fun to point out, though clearly unintentional.

  7. For it to be an emoticon, there would have to be a lack of opening parenthesis. This is merely a case of meta-pareidolia.

  8. The evidence that it isn’t, is that the next parenthetical phrase ends in “.)”. It’s just a punctuation mark followed by a closed-parenthesis.

  9. I don’t think there would be any confusion or debate if the stenographer had not put an unnecessary space after the word “laughter” as s/he does throughout.

    Well, technically that would have been the typesetter.

  10. Yeesh, if that guy really works for Proquest, and if he was serious, my estimation of Proquest just took a nose-dive. I say that as a historian *and* as someone with two brain cells to rub together.

  11. Nicholson Baker wrote an interesting essay in the *the Size of Thought* covering “The History of Punctuation” including an archaic preference for combining the semicolon with a dash.

  12. Note the extra space given before the colon in the top line. This was common practice at the time.

    The same is being done for the semicolon in the alleged “emoticon”, creating the crosstime illusion of relevance.


    Please tell me this is not what Google Books has come to.

  13. A space before a double punctuation mark ( ; : ! « » etc) and no space before a single one ( . , ) is still standard practice in French.

    I remember sitting in a lecture in France where students were being warned of errors to avoid when writing up essays on a computer. One error would be to have the opening or closing quotation marks separated from the quotation by a line break. [We were instructed to use a non-breaking space between the quotation marks and the quotation to prevent this.]

    Unlike some of the above posters, I will give everyone involved in this OMG EMOTICON! excitement the benefit of the doubt and assume they have a sense of humour.

    For those of you who are relying solely on the fact that there is an opening bracket to discount the time-travelling-emoticon theory, isn’t it normal enough, if you want to put a smilie at the end of a parenthetical remark, to put the closing bracket to this double use (it avoids giving your smilie a double chin :))

  14. This may actually be a clever way to use a smiley face in his speech. It is an odd coincidence that is is used with something that is mean to be taken as a joke. It is true that it has been used in the past in almost identical scenarios (at the end of a phrase within a parenthesis). But what makes this unique is the space before the semicolon. This would be an incorrect use of it. It may be a typo, or it may be a clever smiley face. We will just have to wait for resurrection technology to ask zombie Lincoln ourselves.

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