Exdee Revisited

Jason Lynch <jason@aexoden.com>

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Throughout time, there have been many debates, ranging in importance. Perhaps never has there been a debate quite as trivial as the "proper" way to capitalize an emoticon. Today, as you may have guessed from the title of the article, I speak of exdee, so named for its component characters: an "x" followed by a "d". The general opinion of this emoticon is that it represents some form of amusement or laughing. Neither the component characters nor the general meaning are in dispute. Much more contentious, however, is the proper way to capitalize this emoticon.

Many years ago, I attempted to answer this question with my somewhat appropriately titled article xD or XD: The Eternal Question. At the time, my conclusion made perfect sense, but my methodology was flawed: I started with an answer and laid out my questions in such a way as to lead the reader to that answer. Many times, I wished the article would simply go away, but such wasn't fate. And so, here I am, five years later, to finally answer this question once and for all: what is the proper way to capitalize exdee?

Mathematically speaking, there are only four possibilities, unless there are cases other than upper and lower. If there are, please let me know, as I appear to have traversed between parallel dimensions, a feat worthy of an article in itself. Note that other distinctions, such as the use of accented characters, are not being questioned here. This debate is isolated completely to the subject of capitalization. As such, because there are both lowercase and uppercase versions of each letter, we can deduce that there are indeed four possibilities: "xd", "Xd", "xD", and "XD". The question on everyone's mind (with an opinionated answer on most everyone's tongue, no doubt) is which of these variations is the correct one. That's the conundrum I seek to explore today, and we'll start our journey with a short history lesson.

A Little Bit of History

Emoticons have a long history—perhaps longer than many of you might expect. Then again, for many of you, the history may seem ridiculously short. Nonetheless, emoticons (or smilies, as they are often referred to) have been around in some form for many years. according to the Wikipedia article on the subject, a source which many of you will no doubt laugh at me for citing (Go on, research the subject on your own. I'll still be here. If anything I say turns out to be wrong, I'll even correct it.), the first proto-emoticons can be traced back to the early 20th century. However, it wasn't until September of 1982 when the archetypal ":-)" and ":-(" were first proposed (to be used to represent emotion, no less).

Myself, I can remember my first introduction to these emoticons as a child in the early 90s: I was reading a conversation my father was having with someone online, which included a curious colon followed by a parenthesis. My inquisitive nature immediately reared its head and I asked what that was supposed to be. He simply suggested I turn my head sideways. The revelation was instant, and while I wouldn't particularly say that I was enlightened, it was a certainly a novel concept to me at the time.

That said, my own personal discovery of emoticons contributed little to their development, and they continued to develop on their own just fine. This article isn't exactly intended to be a detailed history of emoticons, and besides, researching that subject could prove to be tremendously difficult, as I discovered when attempting to research the history of exdee. My only weapon in this admittedly short quest for exdee history was Google Groups. Google, while generally an excellent search engine, falls short when searching for a particular emoticon, especially when it's composed of two letters. Eventually, I did find a semi-early reference to a similar emoticon (using an "x" for the eyes and a "d" for the mouth): a post dated January 2, 1997. This post indicated that the combination "X-D" signified a laugh. Now we're getting somewhere.

Other early references showed the use of a small "x", but only in strange combinations representing emoticons as complex as kittens and propellers. Not exactly a vote of confidence for the "xD" variation. The emoticon seems to explode in popularity in the late 20th to early 21st centuries, at an exact time I'm not entirely sure of. In fact, the two most popular variations seem to take off at similar speeds. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to assume that historically, the capital "X" is the reasonable choice.

Life's Just a Popularity Contest, Sam

As any good debater knows, the fact that something comes first doesn't imply that it's the best. This concept is probably known to you Latin geeks out there as argumentum ad antiquitatem, or appeal to tradition. Since I'm all about avoiding obvious logical fallacies, we'll take a look at what definitely isn't a common logical fallacy: appeal to the people (argumentum ad populum). Of course, actually assessing the relative popularity of each variation proves to be moderately difficult, as Google's search engine doesn't seem to be case sensitive, which makes Google Fight rather useless in this case. Instead, I had to resort to the materials I had on hand.

I took a collection of IRC logs dating back a few months from a couple of different communities, which is hardly representative of the general public, or even the Internet public. This fact alone makes any conclusion I might make rather dubious, but when I read an argumentative article, I expect to see some charts, so it's charts we'll look at today. I essentially used three different methods to count the usage of each variation. A commonality between the methods is that my search pattern was a non-alphabetical character, followed by the exdee variant, followed by yet another non-alphabetical character. Anyway, the three methods were:

  1. Total number of lines the variation appears in.
  2. Total number of unique nicknames using each variation.
  3. Total number of simplified nicknames using each variation. Essentially, I applied a heuristic to get rid of common suffixes like "|sleep" and "|reallife". If you have ever used IRC, you may have a clue what I'm talking about.

This produced the following results:


As you can readily see, "xD" is the most popular, followed by "XD". Trailing far behind in third place is "xd", followed by the extremely rare "Xd", which as far as I know, has only occurred as the result of a typing error. But who knows, maybe someone does prefer that variation. Alas, this section does rely on yet another logical fallacy, so it's hardly a basis for argument. It's about time we look for some real facts.

Visual Appeal

There are essentially two ways we can approach this visual analysis problem, and since this is probably the only article on the subject (beyond my previous attempt, of course), we may as well go for broke and cover them both.

The first approach we'll take here is to compare the different variations to real life. After all, emoticons are supposed to be a caricature of sorts of real life. The first thing about any face that you're bound to notice is that the eyes are centered with respect to the mouth. Regardless of which mouth variation you choose ("d" or "D"), it's clear that the lowercase "x" most definitely is not centered. This suggests that "X" is superior, at least in this respect. However, there are other aspects to be considered. For example, what happens to the eyes and mouth during a situation of intense hilarity? At least in my case, the eyes squint together and the mouth gets wider. If we go back to my caricature note, it seems appropriate to use a symbol that exaggerates this process. This suggests that the lowercase "x" isn't such a bad representation after all. In either case, it's obvious that arguments based on real life can be used to recommend either set of eyes, so perhaps we should turn our attention to the second approach.

The second approach is to compare exdee to other emoticons. So far as I can tell, the two most popular characters to use to represent the eyes are the colon and the equal sign. This presents something of a conundrum, as the two characters have distinctly different profiles. In the case of the colon, we can easily see that it matches up perfectly with a lowercase "x". On the other hand, the equal sign appears to be at least closer to being centered, though it still doesn't exactly match up with the uppercase "X". This perhaps gives a slight edge to the lowercase "x", but I'd hardly call this conclusive.

Of course, we've only really looked at the eyes so far, and that's only half of the emoticon. There's still a mouth to discuss. In fact, the mouth may suggest a much more important issue, because there's a very critical distinction. The uppercase "D" clearly represents an open, smiling mouth. This is coherent with a general sense of amusement and laughter. The lowercase "d", on the other hand, doesn't represent a smiling mouth at all. In fact, the mouth is rather flat, and the tongue is sticking out. Something's clearly amiss here. If there's a critical semantic distinction with the "d", who's to say that there isn't a similar distinction with the "x", as well? It seems that at the start of this article, I made one crucial mistake: I assumed that there is a single correct variation. This epiphany of sorts leads us right into the final section of this expedition.

Some Semantics Antics

When it comes right down to it, the whole point of an emoticon is to represent an emotion. I know from experience that many emoticons represent very particular emotions within my mind, and many times, I'm incapable of finding a single word to describe them, other than the emoticon itself. It seems that emoticons are taking on lives as words themselves, or better yet, as ideograms. In this sense, they're becoming a part of the written language, and as any good linguist will tell you, language varies not only from culture to culture, but from person to person.

The key feature here is that different variations of exdee may in fact represent different meanings to some people, but mean exactly the same thing to others. Some variations may mean nothing to some people, just as "hfhjfj" probably doesn't mean much to any of you. For another example of where this happens in language, consider English pronunciation. Some people pronounce "cot" and "caught" differently, while others pronounce them the same. It seems that the same effect may potentially be observed in emoticons, both exdee and others.

When communicating with other people, the most important thing is that you are understood. As long as everyone involved understands the underlying meaning behind your particular variation of exdee, what does it matter which variation you ultimately chose to use? In many cases, the exact connotation may be a secret shared by only two people, through years of conversation, while the general meaning of laughter remains for the larger group. Emoticons have only recently become a feature of human language, and if text-based communication remains popular, the embodied complexities may only increase by leaps and bounds, and that's a world I can't wait to see. Forget the nonsense about what's right and wrong; correct and incorrect. Just use what comes naturally, and respect that others will do the same. In the end, we'll all be better for it.