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Emoticon vs. Emoji: The Key Differences Explained

Ever since people started talking to each other using keyboards and screens, they’ve been using emoticons, smileys, and emojis to fill the gaps. There are no nuances, mimics, or intonation when you text, so you throw in a smiling face to make sure the message is read in the same spirit as it was intended.

But is there a difference between emoticons and emojis, and where do smileys fit into the mix? Let’s set the record straight here.

Are Emoji and Emoticon the Same Thing?

Emojis and emoticons are not the same thing and don’t let the internet tell you otherwise. The two terms have been used interchangeably, even by media giants like New York Times and BBC. But they do, in fact, mean different things.

What causes confusion is that both emoticons and emojis are used to spice up text conversations and inject them with emotion. And it doesn’t help that they sound alike.

But the difference between them is actually very simple: emoticons are combinations of symbols available on your keyboard, like letters and punctuation marks, while emojis are pictures. We’ll explain this in more detail.

What Is an Emoticon?

As we briefly explained above, an emoticon is a set of punctuation marks, letters, and numbers arranged to resemble a human face. Each emoticon is more or less universally understood and denotes a certain emotion, or sometimes an object. For example, 😀 means laughing or a big grin, :-O is for surprise, and <3 is the closest you get to a heart.


Eastern and Western cultures have completely different sets of emoticons, though. For example, western ones are to be read sideways, from left to right, while Eastern emoticons don’t need to be rotated and can sometimes use non-Latin characters.

Emoticons Started With a Joke Gone Wrong

In 1982, Neil Schwartz posted a physics riddle involving mercury and a candle on the Carnegie Mellon University message board. To that, his colleague Howard Gayle replied:

“WARNING! Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury. There is also some slight fire damage. Decontamination should be complete by 08:00 Friday.”

It’s easy to predict what happened next: the joke went terribly wrong and spurred panic on the campus. And that, according to the legend, is why the emoticon was born.

Dr. Scott E. Fahlman, a computer scientist at CMU, suggested that all jokes on the message board be marked with the 🙂 set of characters, which looked like a smiling face rotated sideways. A different set of characters, like 🙁 would follow all serious posts. These typographic faces then spread around the web and became known as emoticons or “emotion icons.”

What Is an Emoji?

An emoji (plural emoji or emojis) is a pictogram, a small picture that can show anything from a smiling face, a mango to a cigarette butt. New emojis appear every year to the delight of smartphone users. The word emoji essentially means “picture-character” (from Japanese e – “picture,” and moji – “letter, character”).

Several thousand emoji have corresponding codes in Unicode, a computing industry standard for encoding. Messengers, social media apps, and browsers read the code and show you a graphic that matches it. Different software can have slightly different graphics, which is why an emoji you send from an iPhone is not quite what the recipient sees on an Android phone.

Here is how you can get new emojis on Android, and you can even get them on your iPhone.

They can mean different things, too, like the Snapchat emoji meanings.

Some Emoji and Emoticons Are Interchangeable

To make things even more ambiguous, some emojis have emoticon counterparts. Most of the round yellow faces on your smartphone have corresponding sets of characters you may or may not remember, depending on your age.

Some of those are difficult to interpret if you don’t know what they originally meant—like the :$ that corresponds to the Flushed Face emoji. Others are easy to recognize, like the ‘,:-| that stands for the Face with One Eyebrow Raised. A few other non-face emojis have typography twins, too. There’s </3 for Broken Heart, @}->– and a few others for Rose, and even *<|:?) for Santa Claus!

What Is a Smiley, Then?

Sorry to open a whole new can of worms here, but we have to address this. Generally speaking, a smiley is a graphic representation of a smiling face, whatever the form. The original emoticon 🙂 counts as a smiley, and so does the Slightly Smiling Face emoji.

Originally, a “smiley” was the yellow smiling face designed in 1963 and became a symbol of rave culture. But when emoticons entered chatrooms, we started calling them smileys as well. Smileys became more elaborate, varied, and even animated in ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, and other turn-of-the-century hangouts.

How and When Did Emoji Replace Emoticons?

Shigetaka Kurita, then an interface designer for a Japanese mobile operator, created the first popular emoji in 1999. There were others two years earlier, but it’s the 1999 set that became popular in Japan as mobile operators added it to their messaging features.

The first emoji ever made, according to the interview Shigetaka Kurita gave to Vice, was a heart icon. Faces with various emotions followed, inspired by the people the designer saw in the city. The first set included a total of 176 icons, denoting things like emotions, weather, sports, and everyday objects.

In 2010, emojis were added to the Unicode standard, allowing tech giants like Apple and Google to bring emojis to user devices. Once iPhone and Android users were able to add those cute little pictures to their messages and posts, they gleefully did so. Emoticons, which used to dominate text messages, became few and far between.

As you know, by now, emojis have pushed emoticons out of online conversations pretty much. But if you’re still nostalgic for the Shruggie, you can find plenty of them on the internet.

Take Your Emoji Game to the Next Level

Emojis have taken over messenger conversations, Instagram captions, and even work emails. So if you’re going to use them, you better use them with full conviction.

There are plenty of tricks that allow you to get even more emojis to choose from or come up with a suitable emoji response faster. You can broaden your selection with alternative emoji keyboards and use predictive text to have your phone replace text with emoji—the possibilities are truly endless.


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