Emoticons Versus Emoji

After we published an article about how to make emoji, Waldo B. started to wonder about the difference between emoticons and emoji. Here's the answer.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

emoticons versus emoji

Two weeks ago, we had an article on the QuickAndDirtyTips website about emoji—those little cartoon images you can add to text messages and websites that support them—and then a reader named Waldo B. wrote in with a great question: What’s the difference between emoji and emoticons?

My first thought was that emoji are cartoon pictures and emoticons are made from symbols on your keyboard, such as the smiley face you make with a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis. :-)

But, it’s not so simple. 

Some apps and services will convert popular emoticons to emoji when you type in the symbols, so you may type what I would think of as an emoticon and end up with an emoji. 

Also, some sites say that emoticons (short for emotion + icons) were designed to specifically show emotion by representing a facial expression such as a smile or frown, whereas emoji include images of faces, but also many other things, such as pictures of food and animals that aren’t closely tied to emotion. But I keep thinking about a couple of common images people make with symbols such as a rose @}->-- or hugs ((())). Those don’t exactly show emotion, at least not through facial expressions, but they’re made with symbols the same way emoticons are. Can we still call them emoticons, or are they early precursors to emoji?

What I can say for sure is that emoticons made from keyboard symbols came first, and emoji emerged later and first became popular on Japanese cell phone services. Scott Fahlman is credited with creating the first keyboard smiley face of the computer age at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982, and all the way back in 1881, Puck Magazine printed a short article showing emoticons made out of typographic symbols. They called it typographical art. On the other hand, the first set of 176 emoji, designed by Shigetaka Kurita for DoCoMo, went live in 1999.

Finally, there’s one little piece of research about emoticons that I have always found particularly delightful: While doing research at Stanford, Tyler Schnoebelen found that younger people are more likely to make emoticons without noses. He wrote:

Emoticons with noses are historically older . . . people who use old-fashioned noses also use a different vocabulary—nose users don't mention Bieber or omg.

It’s true! I use noses and I have never, ever tweeted about Justin Bieber. 

Related Articles

Emoticons: Noses or Noseless?
What Do Emoji Mean?

Emoji image from mondspeer at Deviant Art.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.