One of the time-honored rituals of bored term paper writers everywhere has been highlighting a block of text, selecting Wingdings from the fonts menu, and watching in amazement as the various letters, numbers, and punctuation marks were magically transformed into unreadable symbols and smiley faces. But there’s more to Wingdings than that. Before emoji ruled the world, the Wingdings font was the quickest, easiest way to supplement text with small, simple images. But where did Wingdings come from and how did the font even get that name? Phil Edwards and Sarah Turbin solve the mystery in the new, three-minute Vox video “Why The Wingdings Font Exists.”

The proud, noble heritage of Wingdings goes back to the earliest days of printing when text had to be set by hand, laboriously, one letter at a time. Printing anything was tedious, let alone gussying it up for aesthetic purposes. So printers developed what were known as dingbats, i.e., simple ornamental characters that could be inserted into printed text as easily as any letter. The humble dingbat was efficient as well as decorative. German calligrapher Hermann Zapf drew on old printing traditions when he created the modern, computer-ready Zapf Dingbats font in the late 1970s. When Microsoft bought the rights in the 1980s, the font was renamed Wingdings, an amalgam of Windows and Dingbats. The name also conveyed a certain lighthearted spirit, since “wingding” is an American slang term for a party. The video stresses that Wingdings is strictly decorative and was never intended to be used for typing, so people who misuse it in this manner are missing the point entirely. Arguably, the saddest moment in the history of Wingdings came when the New York Post discovered that typing “NYC” in Wingdings revealed what could be interpreted as an anti-Semitic message: a Star Of David, a skull and crossbones, and a thumbs up.