The emoticon might be older than we thought. This passage of text, which includes a cheeky smiley, is taken from Robert Herrick’s 1648 poem To Fortune — and it might be the first ever use of an emoticon.
Literary critic Levi Stahl thought the punctuation might be a typo in his copy of of Hesperides, but he checked out the authoritative two-volume edition of Herrick’s work published last year by the Oxford University Press and found the exact same thing. Stahl has since claimed that that it could well be an intentional invention of the smiley, as the poet’s work is generally cleverly written with smart, underlying humour.
If its is the first instance of an emoticon, it predates other claimants to the title by about 200 years. Of course, it’s not clear if it was intentional or not, and it’s tricky to ask Robert Herrick now. Indeed, The New Atlantis — a journal about tech and society — points out that there’s a copy in existence without the parentheses, which could mean it was a clever editorial addition sometime after the first edition appeared.