Wipe That Smile off Your Face

Linguist Naomi Baron is here to lead smiley to the gallows. She predicts that abbreviations will replace emoticons and that electronic communication will grow increasingly cryptic as groups develop their own secret codes.

Read the Main Story: He Seconds That Emotion

According to Naomi Baron, “Jonathan Swift would stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being appreciated online — even with the help of emoticons.”


Don’t get her wrong. Baron doesn’t doubt Swift’s sardonic might or literary genius. She just thinks emoticons fail to serve their purpose as indicators of intent in electronic communication. In short, 😉 doesn’t really mean jack.

“There’s an enormous amount of ambiguity in all spoken and written language; however informal or speechlike, email is no different,” says Baron, professor of linguistics at American University and author of Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It’s Heading (Routledge, 2000). “The difference is that we are aware of the possibility of being misunderstood in traditional off-line writing, so we make efforts to be absolutely clear. Because so many people formulate and send email messages quickly, email tends to be sloppier and harder to understand.”

Emoticons were initially designed to compensate for that sloppiness by flagging sarcasm, joy, and anger — emotions seldom conveyed well in written communication. 🙂 and :- (helped early adopters deal with the idiosyncrasies of electronic communication. Today, they are merely hood ornaments.

“When the telephone was first developed, users were tremendously concerned that they wouldn’t be able to make themselves clear if they couldn’t see the other person face-to-face,” Baron says. “If you ask people today if they are able to communicate clearly over the phone, they would look at you as if you were crazy. Of course you can.”

Just as Ma Bell conditioned telephone users to hold nonvisual conversations, the widespread use of email has taught people to expect messages without proper capitalization, punctuation, or even complete sentences. “As email becomes just another medium for communication — rather than something new and exotic — we become less conscious of its limitations, and we adapt,” Baron says. “More and more people are using email as a replacement for memos or phone conversations. They don’t use emoticons in those other media, so why would they use them in email?”

So what’s 🙂 good for today? Baron says that most emoticon proponents use emoticons not to clarify correspondence, but to demonstrate social status — to illustrate their knowledge of cool Web lingo and to associate themselves with other Net-savvy folks. Emoticons are becoming chat-room tattoos — symbols used to identify specific users and to set apart distinct social groups.


Several years ago, two of Baron’s students wrote a paper about the differences between American and Korean emoticons. Smiley is as universal as Coca-Cola, but most other text-based images have become specific to the people who use them. “Emoticons have become a mark of cultural bonding,” Baron says. “People want symbols to differentiate their group from others in cyberspace and to keep outsiders from infiltrating their discussions.”

All of this suggests to Baron that emoticons are on the way out. She says that smiley and frowny’s replacements will be cryptic abbreviations — acronyms and symbols that hold meaning to only small, distinct groups of people. These abbreviations will differ from widespread e-acronyms like LOL (laugh out loud) and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), because they will not be universal. In fact, they’ll be quite the opposite.

For generations, teenagers have passed notes peppered with code names and abbreviations to thwart nosy teachers and parents. Baron believes that in the future, teenagers will conduct their secret conversations via email. If Baron is right, personal email messages might soon resemble top secret World War II telegrams.

“Emoticons serve social and interpersonal functions, but they aren’t particularly communicative,” Baron says. “Abbreviations, on the other hand, get a message across. They will come to resemble a secret handshake that expresses meaning without actually spelling it out.”

IMNSHO, there’s NWIH that anyone will WB to PITA email that takes 4ever to decipher. (Read the translation.)

Read the Main Story: He Seconds That Emotion