Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, January 26, 1996

E-Mail Correspondents Reinvent Hieroglyphics

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
Paris -- The other day I received a letter from a friend that began: ''You dirty slob. :-)''

Since it was E-mail, I knew I was not to be offended. Looking sideways at the punctuation marks -- the colon, dash and parentheses -- I saw a smiling face that told me the preceding sentence was to be interpreted in the opposite sense from the apparent one. My correspondent was not insulting me but giving me an affectionate nudge in the ribs.

I promptly pressed the reply button on my computer and sent my response: ''You bloated bag of protoplasm. ;->'

That was just what my correspondent was waiting for, and we went on to have a wonderful E-mail conversation.

The Internet user is often considered an illiterate, pornography-hunting game player who passes his days glued to a screen the way he was probably glued to the TV 30 years ago watching ''Star Trek.''

But the Net has done world culture a service by bringing letter writing back in style after the telephone nearly killed it. E-mail letter writing will never be the same as it was in the days when Cicero wrote on tablets, however. The Net has taken us back in time much further, to the days of hieroglyphics.

The Net allows us to communicate so quickly and easily that one of its drawbacks is the ''flame,'' or extremely nasty letter. People often don't think about what they type before they cast aspersions electronically.

Enter the ''emoticon.'' The emotion-showing icon -- the original of which was made famous by the same Star Trek generation in the 1970s and was usually accompanied by the phrase, ''Have a nice day'' -- has found its niche on the Net as a flame repellent.

I was at first suspicious of the ''smiley,'' thinking that in previous centuries letter writers simply formulated their phrases precisely in order to prevent misunderstandings. But after some Net research, I learned that these little hieroglyphics used in all forms of written communication on the Net are becoming a complex international language of their own, well worth taking seriously -- or just for fun.

Some Net hounds have created compendiums of smilies and made them available on the Net. While there are hundreds of smilies, I have selected some from the best compendium I have found, ''The Unofficial Smiley Dictionary,'' located on the Web at:

Readers may find it easier to visualize the faces depicted here by turning the newspaper on its side to see the way the colon represents the eyes, the dash the nose, a parentheses the mouth and so on.

:-) Your basic smiley. This is used to inflect a sarcastic or joking statement.

;-) Winky smiley. User just made a flirtatious and/or sarcastic remark.

:-( Frowning smiley. User did not like that last statement or is upset or depressed.

:-I Indifferent smiley.

:-> User just made a really biting, sarcastic remark.

>:-> User just made a really devilish remark.

Those are the basic smilies. Here are some less common ones:

(-: User is left-handed.

%-) User has been staring at a green screen for 15 hours straight.

:*) User is drunk.

:-{) User has a mustache.

{:-) User wears a toupé.

}:-( ToupŽe in an updraft.

:-7 User just made a wry statement.

:'-( User is crying.

:-@ User is screaming.

:-# User wears braces.

:-& User is tongue-tied.

:-Q User is a smoker.

:-S User just made an incoherent statement.

:-D User is laughing at you.

<:-I User is a dunce.

K:P User is a little kid with a propeller beanie.

C=>;*{)) Mega-smiley. A drunk, devilish chef with a toupé in an updraft, a mustache and a double chin.

One smiley also shows evidence that the Star Trek generation has grown up, matured and come to accept the realities of everyday life:

:-| This is the ''have an ordinary day'' smiley.

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