Symbols in Texts: From X’s and O’s to Emoticons and Emojis


The need to express more than words can manage has always been an issue with written communication; the rise of the emoticon and emoji is a testament to that. The emoji, the widespread ‘smiley face’-type characters you see across almost all forms of text-based communication, was first seen in Japan as Japanese phone companies began to attempt to support the increasing interest in picture images by their consumer-base. NTT DoCoMo, the biggest mobile-phone operator in Japan at the time would end up creating what could be called the first set of emoji’s back in 1999.

These emojis have now spread like wildfire and have been used in all forms of text communication, and by people of all ages. They can be considered an evolution of the less sophisticated ’emoticons’ that preceded them (where a smiley-face or similar sentiment was formed out of the arrangement of text-based characters).  But it’s in this current decade where we have seen emojis take off in a huge way and become a part of everyday online and phone communication.

The simpler ’emoticons’ that were common before the rise of the emoji.


The phenomena of requiring symbols to help convey meaning across written messages goes far back to the still ubiquitous X’s and O’s that represent kisses and hugs at the end of letters or texts. These simple symbols have carried extra meaning of affection for well over centuries now, being able to be traced back to the middle ages.

The custom of placing an “X” at the end of a letter to indicate sincerity, or a kiss, originally was a representation of a Christian cross that was drawn on letters to express earnestness, faith and honesty. Metaphorically, this represented a kiss being placed upon a cross by the signer as a display of sworn oath. The very first mention in literature of the ‘X’ representing an actual kiss to the reader, removed from any religious connotation, is at the end of a letter dated from 1901, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There is uncertainty on the origins of the ‘O’ as a representation of hugging, although some debate it resulted from the customs of Jewish immigrants in North America who would replace the sign of a cross with their own symbol ‘O’. Whereas others  have argued the ‘O’ represents the arms in a circle around another person.

Whatever the true origins of these symbols might be, it appears that people have always found the need to express themselves with more than mere words can manage, and from X’s and O’s to emoticons and emojis, this fact of life seems to be endemic throughout different cultures and history.

March 16, 2018
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