Short take: "smiley face" - OED WOTD

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 10 15:50:36 UTC 2010

No one has ever accused me of stopping digging too soon, so I'll give it
another crack.

What Jon Lighter calls "connotation of laudably sunny optimism" cum
"cheerful conformity", we used to identify as a symbol of invasive,
pestilent banality, which is exactly the use made of it in Zippy and in
a number of films (although I can't cite any specific ones at the
moment). But, I suspect, Jon is more correct than he thinks when he
mentions its description as "Happy Face" rather than "Smiley Face". I
would suggest, however, that the reason is precisely the opposite of
what might be expected--"smiley face" was so ubiquitous in its
description of the hand-drawn variety that "Happy Face" might have
seemed more appropriate for the deconstructed black-on-yellow image. A
smiley face had two elements--an inverted arc or a squiggle, the smile,
and two dots, the eyes. A Happy Face was a complete, albeit
deconstructed, face, so other elements (complete circle, color,
geometric precision) were required.

For reasons that should be obvious, by now, I grew up without ever
having seen a Ball design before I was 16. However, I've seen smileys on
student papers--made by both teachers and students--earlier than that.
My first association of the Ball design was with "Have a nice day!",
which was a rather standard pairing in the early 1980s (my frame of
reference) and, in some ways, still is. WalMart's usurpation of the
symbol for its ad campaign has only made the association with banality

I suppose, as an expression of resentment, I've always drawn my Smiley
Faces with fangs--and by Smiley Faces, this time, I mean the full-circle
design rather than the two-element drawing. In 1985, a friend and I put
two 3D fanged smileys (one sticking a long tongue out at the other) in
the MIT Residence Guide under the description of one of the dorms--one
that Wiki describes as "long known for its alternative culture",
although a better phrase might have been "resistance to conformity" (not
even goths were welcome *as a group*--current housemasters refer to it
as "reputation for eccentricity"). The caption under the image was "Have
a Day". At the time, the image drew objections from the Dean's Office,
but it was retained because no official pretext for striking it was ever
found. There are certainly plenty of fanged--as well as
cross-eyed--versions of the Ball design today as there likely have been
some before ours.

The real question is, did "smiley face" have an association in the 1960s
with the simplistic two-element drawing or with the full Ball design. If
it was the former, that the 1957 appearance is, as I said earlier, of a
piece. If not, then it is coincidental. Although there is a full figure
in the design in the 1957 article, the "smiley face" only refers to what
appears on the paper plate, which AFAICT is the two-element drawing.

I did put a caveat on the pre-1963 citations and I remain of the opinion
that they are distinct but related and special uses. But I will defer to
resident lexicographers.


On 5/10/2010 9:49 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> 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
> do.)
> 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
> eyes.

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