Emoticons can help us to either completely lose our minds or retain our sanity as we communicate with one another online and through texts. While a passive aggressive happy face tacked onto a work email can and should result in computer monitors being tossed out a window with great force and vigor, the difference between a "K" and a "K :)" can make or break a budding relationship between two awkward, asocial nerds. And while nothing can so perfectly convey the nuance and complexity of a well-placed this thing:
...people have long been using inventive ways of communicating when talking is either impossible, dangerous, or undesirable.
Thousands of years ago, people all across the world used images of people, animals, and outlines of hands to either recreate events, convey messages, ("I killed this beast and it was awesome" / "K :)") or, perhaps, for religious or ceremonial purposes. In either case, early peoples were tasked with conveying big, broad, abstract concepts like fear or bravery or reverence with simplified, stylized figures. This marked the first time that human beings were like, "Whoa. Hmm. The more I look at this sick outline of my hand, the more I realize that I can communicate without actually having to talk to Krog." Krog is the worst. >:)
While there remains a lot of conjecture about the actual purpose behind early cave drawing, more is known about the nature of Egyptian writing, both the more formal type used for religious literature, and the more informal kind used for LiveJournal. Egyptian hieroglyphs used pictures and symbols to stand for sounds or whole words. Much like other writing systems both lost over time and still in current use, hieroglyphics will often use a picture to represent an object or a related idea / sound. But they're not quite like emoticons for one big reason: They're not as emotional. In fact, researchers were at first impeded in their attempts to decipher early Egyptian writing because they kept ascribing emotional significance to the images instead of focusing on the sounds the images called to mind. This would be like using a happy face emoticon to convey the "haha" sound rather than happiness upon learning that the guy who sits behind you in chem is finally single. :)
Victorians Pretty Much Never had to Talk
Victorians might have gotten some stuff pretty wrong, but they were quite adept at avoiding awkward conversation. They could, for example, resort to floriography -- using flowers to signify various emotional states. Asparagus foliage apparently meant "fascination," and giving your boo jonquil meant "return my sexts." Grass meant "submission" and giving your love coriander meant "lust," confirming that tacos are indeed the sexiest of dishes. Then there was "fan language." Here is a handy breakdown of different you can communicate with fans, from twirling your fan in your right hand ("Move on, dude. I have a crush on someone else.") to making a "threatening" movement with a closed fan ("Shut up already.") to slapping someone across the face with your fan ("I love you.") There was also, of course, a special code for calling cards, meaning that you could pretty much express your interest in banging someone without ever having to speak to him directly. The pinnacle of human development, clearly.
Using special codes can also help people be discreet in times or great risk or danger. Take, for example, handkerchief codes used by gay men (mostly in the 70s although you can still definitely see examples of it today) to announce their sexual preferences. Things can get pretty specific, which saves a lot of people a lot of time. And, again, little to no talking required!
Emoji, broadly speaking, is just a Japanese term for a "smiley" or emoticon. More informally, the term is used for the increasingly specific, adorable, and often absurd images we use online and in texts to communicate how we feel or what we're up to. Think of them as next-level emoticons, which can often be used together to form a sentence, of sorts, without using any pesky words or face-to-face interactions.