Short take: "smiley face" - OED WOTD

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 10 13:49:59 UTC 2010

The issue seems to be whether a "smiley face" must be a "Smiley Face," i.e.
either Ball design or something very close to it.
Even if the 1957 face was virtually indistinguishable from the Ball design,
it would not, IMO, be a "Smiley Face."  Why?  Because the ubiquity of the
yellow Ball design in (IIRC) the late 1970s (some years after its creation)
has essentially monopolized the semantic content of the phrase since then.

For the past thirty-odd years, when someone has said "smiley face," the
yellow Ball design has been taken as the norm. (Assuming others think as I

While it may be splitting hairs from a lexicographical perspective, given
the similarity of the 1957 face to the 1970s face, "smiley face" in 1957
could not have had the connotations of laudably sunny optimism (or
kitschy, cheerful conformity - take your pick),  that it acquired some
twenty years later. I'd argue. perhaps paradoxically, that "smiley face"
became a "special compound" in the 1970s even if that's precisely how the
1957 writer would have characterized a time-traveling Ball smiley in 1957.

BTW, since the '70s when I first conceptualized the image based on the Ball
design, I've usually called it a "happy face."  "Smiley face" was somebody
else's locution.

Ten or fifteen years ago I obtained a yellow smiley pin with a straight-line
mouth and perfectly round eyes. It is meant to suggest, "Have an Ordinary
Day!"  It was also available in gray. Shortly afterward more bitter variants
appeared, including a happy smiley with a bleeding bullet wound between the


On Mon, May 10, 2010 at 8:37 AM, Amy West <medievalist at> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Amy West <medievalist at W-STS.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Short take: "smiley face" - OED WOTD
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >Date:    Sun, 9 May 2010 23:13:15 -0400
> >From:    victor steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> >Subject: Re: Short take: "smiley face" - OED WOTD
> >
> >What would be the reason not to have a "smiley face" as a "special
> >compound", as the OED seems to file them, back in 1957? Does it have
> >to be trademarked to be "special"? More importantly, how is the 1968
> >one different from 1957? Even if one reproduces a famous design and
> >the other does not, the actual usage is similar. Remember, the phrase
> >"smiley face" was not trademark--just the black-and-yellow design.
> >
> >VS-)
> Because I have no hesitation in making a fool out of myself on the
> list, and annoying folks at the same time (sorry!), I'd argue that
> the physical context of the 1957 mop greeter is not as abstract as
> the 1968 craft one. The face is being made on that mop greeter in
> 1957 in order to complete a physical representation -- hair, torso,
> etc. That 1968 one has just the face being put on a box. I think
> that's a significant difference.
> (I admit to splitting tendencies, as opposed to lumping tendencies,
> when I worked as a definer.)
> ---Amy West
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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