This year marks an unusual 30th birthday. It was in 1982 that Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, suggested that users of his college's online messageboard combine a colon, hyphen and bracket to highlight sarcastic posts and curb misunderstandings. Thus, the online "smiley face" was born.
Since then, emoticons – symbols made from various parts of our computer keyboards to denote sentiment in digital communication – have themselves become an emotive subject. And if you are still confused, let's just say o_O (translation: "Are you serious?").
Such bastardisations are to punctuation what text acronyms are to vocabulary – and both made the Oxford English Dictionary last year, including OMG, LOL and <3 ("heart"). Proof that, in recent years, emoticons have become a standard communication tool.
But to many they are still the punctuation equivalent of the Comic Sans font or a "wacky" tie: crass. This isn't helped by the fact that mobile phones now aggressively convert certain punctuation sequences into garish images of faces grinning, winking or frowning without one's consent. The writer Lynne Truss (whose Eats, Shoots & Leaves has the subtitle "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation") perhaps unsurprisingly considers emoticons "disrespectful to sentences". And it's true that writers such as Jane Austen managed to convey wit, doubt and surprise without them. They, though, had the luxury of using long sentences, while we live in an era in which news increasingly finds itself broken down into 140-character missives. So perhaps it is time for the pedants to change.
If only because we need to put our glasses on to decipher them, few adults would argue for complex examples such as \m/>_<\m/ ("rockin' out" – keep looking, you'll get it eventually). Yet, love or loathe emoticons, this creative invention of a globally understandable new language is, in fact, an incredible and brilliantly democratic feat. Now, where are those glasses ;-)