Researchers Discover a 17th-Century “Emoji”

The classic smiley face has been around for a long time

:) iStock/bortonia

These days, emoji are nearly as common as text. Some 6 billion of the minute images are sent around the world every day. But the classic smiley-face emoji has actually been around for a long time. Now, scientists at the National Archives in Trencin, Slovakia, have discovered a 17th-century version of the ubiquitous colon and parenthesis emoji, Shreesha Ghosh reports for International Business Times.

As Ghosh writes, back in 1635, in a village nearby Slovakia’s Strazov Mountains, lawyer Jan Ladislaides marked his stamp of approval on municipal account documents with a small blotched drawing of two dots and a line inside a circle. The discovery of the image’s uncanny resemblance to what we know as the “smiley-face emoji” has researchers speculating that it is an ancestor of the modern emoji, Sputnik International reports.

“I do not know if it’s the oldest Slovakian smiley or the world’s oldest,” Peter Brindza, the head of the National Archives tells Barcroft News, as Lauren Tousignant reports for the New York Post. “But it is certainly one of the oldest in the Trencin region.”

Even though the expression may look much more like a displeased, straight-faced expression, Brindza tells Barcroft News that the context of the passage that Ladislaides wrote led his team to believe this 382-year-old drawing was a positive check sign. In addition to the smiley face, the researchers also stumbled across what looks like a clown’s hand pointing upward among the pages of Ladislaide’s legal documents. While its purpose is unknown, China Global Television Network speculates that it could serve as a kind of “hashtag.”

In 2014, the title of “oldest emoji” was briefly given to what appeared to be a smiley face in a 1648 poem “To Fortune,” by English poet Robert Herrick. However, Slate’s Ben Zimmer soon debunked the find, reporting that the purported smiley face was merely a "typographical red herring.”

Even though the “To Fortune” emoji turned out to be fake, ancestors of the emoji go way back in world history. “From cave paintings, to hieroglyphics, to religious and mythological symbols encoded in traditional painting and sculpture, we’ve been communicating through images since the dawn of mankind,” organizers of the Emoji Art & Design Show tell Kristin Hohenadel for Slate.

But ever since Japanese engineers programmed the first set of emoji for digital communication in 1999, the symbols have increasingly exerted their influence on the modern world. The collection of lines and dots that make up a smiley face, especially, has become a powerful communication tool. Unlike in Ladislaides’ time, today, as Rose Eveleth reported for SmartNews in 2014, the human mind has even learned to recognize the cheerful emoji the same way it recognizes a human face.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.