Computers. a digital icon or a sequence of keyboard symbols that serves to represent a facial expression, as :‐) for a smiling face. emoticons are used in a digital message or text to convey the writer’s emotions or clarify intent.
Compare smiley, emoji.

1980–85; blend of emotion and icon

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World English Dictionary
emoticon (ɪˈməʊtɪˌkɒn)
any of several combinations of symbols used in electronic mail and text messaging to indicate the state of mind of the writer, such as :-) to express happiness
[C20: from emot(ion) + icon]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

by 1994, apparently from emotion + icon.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Slang Dictionary


/ee-moh'ti-kon/ n. [common] An ASCII glyph used to indicate an emotional state in email or news. Although originally intended mostly as jokes, emoticons (or some other explicit humor indication) are virtually required under certain circumstances in high-volume text-only communication forums such as Usenet; the lack of verbal and visual cues can otherwise cause what were intended to be humorous, sarcastic, ironic, or otherwise non-100%-serious comments to be badly misinterpreted (not always even by newbies), resulting in arguments and flame wars.

Hundreds of emoticons have been proposed, but only a few are in common use. These include: :-) `smiley face' (for humor, laughter, friendliness, occasionally sarcasm) :-( `frowney face' (for sadness, anger, or upset)

;-) `half-smiley' (ha ha only serious); also known as `semi-smiley' or `winkey face'. :-/ `wry face' (These may become more comprehensible if you tilt your head sideways, to the left.)

The first two listed are by far the most frequently encountered. Hyphenless forms of them are common on CompuServe, GEnie, and BIX; see also bixie. On Usenet, `smiley' is often used as a generic term synonymous with emoticon, as well as specifically for the happy-face emoticon.

It appears that the emoticon was invented by one Scott Fahlman on the CMU bboard systems sometime between early 1981 and mid-1982. He later wrote: "I wish I had saved the original post, or at least recorded the date for posterity, but I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world's communication channels." [GLS confirms that he remembers this original posting].

Note for the newbie: Overuse of the smiley is a mark of loserhood! More than one per paragraph is a fairly sure sign that you've gone over the line.
Example sentences
Ubiquitous emoticons aside, faces are also essential to the expression and
  registering of human feelings.
Top surfers have tattoos, nicknames that ape those of hip-hop stars and
  probably use lots of emoticons when emailing.
The main search screen is reasonably clean, though the emoticons in the date
  bits are arguably a bit too cutesy.
Likewise, including smileys and emoticons did little to change the shape of the
  world's moods.
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