Short take: "smiley face" - OED WOTD

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 10 18:00:42 UTC 2010

My guess is that any "smiley face" in 1957 must have been inspired by what
young children draw atop stick figures.  Twenty years later, the yellow Ball
design had completely usurped that semantic space.

As Victor says, the Ball face has certainly come to symbolize "banality"

The Ball design differs from even the most perfect child's smiley face in
much the same way as one of Roy Lichtenstein's revised pop-art cartoon
panels differs from the original. Few kids could have drawn the Ball face's
dimply mouth with such adeptness, and few would have eschewed big dots for
eyes in favor of Ball's small, upright oblongs.

Too bad you didn't trademark the fanged smiley, Victor. You'd be worth


On Mon, May 10, 2010 at 11:50 AM, Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at>wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Short take: "smiley face" - OED WOTD
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> 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
> worse.
> 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.
>     VS-)
> 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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