What the heck is "leetspeek?"

January 10, 2003

Dear Cecil:

I have an Armchair University degree in English linguistics, and I was thinking about the "l33t5p33k" we see on the Net these days, as well as the Princification of the language, the replacement of "you" with "u" and "to" with "2," etc. Is this just bad English, or is this the next step? Will the English language in 100 years look like the rantings of a 15-year-old hacker as we see it now, and will numbers become letters (1 = I, 2 = to, 3 = E, 4 = for, 5 = S, etc)?

Cecil replies:

Let's put this in perspective, Montfort. Your columnist grew up in the 60s, which as everyone knows was the coolest era in the history of existence. The collective output of the leading lights of that time — your Stones, your Zep, etc. — obliterated everything that had gone before. Sure, your Andy Williams types were still putting out records, and I guess somebody must have bought them (presumably the same people who are presently packing the theaters in Branson, Missouri). But everybody with a clue knew: Those guys were old. They were out of it. They were lame.

That said, I fully expected the next generation to come along with some even more radical pop-cultural contribution that would leave us 60s burnouts in the dust. Didn't happen, at least not right away. During the early 80s I was shocked to overhear a couple 17-year-olds talking about going to a Grateful Dead concert. I wanted to say: You twerps, your parents went to Grateful Dead concerts. You're supposed to think the Grateful Dead suck. There's something terribly wrong with a world in which kids think their elders' culture is hip.

Eventually, thank God, there was rap. I was relieved to find I hated rap. There were times when it was all I could do to keep from growling: How can you kids listen to that noise? I tell you, it did my heart good.

Now comes 133t5p33k, proof that the flames of intergenerational antagonism burn as brightly as ever. Used mainly by teenage chat-room geeks, gamers, and wannabe h4x0r5 (hackers), 133t5p33k replaces standard letterforms with others looking vaguely similar, e.g., 1 for L, 3 for E, 5 for S, and so on (see www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leet for a rundown). Thus 133t5p33k transliterates to "leetspeek." The uninitiated will now ask: What's a leet? It's short for elite, j00 14m3r (j = Y, 4 = A). No one is sure where the name came from, but the meaning is clear enough: Only the elite (i.e., your friends, who are definitely not over 40) are supposed to understand it. Leet involves multiple layers of coding, the better to trip up the unhip. Thus "you are" becomes u r, "the" is purposely misspelled t3h (leetists have adopted common typos as a point of pride), K3W1357 means kewlest/coolest, w4r3z (wares) is slang for pirated software, and so on.

On the scale of linguistic complexity, basic leet is about on a par with pig Latin, and with five minutes' practice just about anyone can crank out elegant prose such as: y c@N'+ p30p13 R3kO9nIZ3 +eh 834UTy uv 1337??? (Apologies to acconav of the Straight Dope Message Board, from whom I lifted this example.) Recognizing this, some 1337!575 are promoting "advanced" leetspeek, which they believe takes things to a new level. Sample: 4|)V4|\|C3D l3e+$peA|< i$ whEn J00 +4lK L1K3 t|-|15. t0 u|\|d3r$+@|\|D jOo |\/|u5+ be lEET. 1f J00 4r3 NO+ lEe+ jOO C@|\|N0T 5p3A|< 0r ReAd +|-|I5. Stumped? I wasn't either. But I bet a lot of parental units are scratching their heads.

At this point you may be thinking: This is |-|0r535|-|17. That's what you're supposed to think, ancient one. Leet is for kids. The whole point is to communicate only with the chosen few, and to frustrate everybody else. That's why there's little danger of leet taking over the English language, which by contrast is useful because it's so widely understood. It's possible that bits of leet will migrate into the mainstream; after all, one of the best-known expressions in English, OK, entered the language during a leetlike fad for silly initials that flourished in U.S. newspapers in the late 1830s (OK stood for "oll korrect"). But so far I'm not seeing much mention of d00dz in the New York Times.

Leet is a game at which more than one generation can play, for better or worse. In a recent discussion of leet on the SDMB, members amused themselves with remarks such as: 13375‹33|‹ ¡5 π07 \/\/31¢0/\/\3 µ3®3 (Jeff Olsen). This inspired the snappy rejoinder 7®|_| |)47, 5|_|¢|<4 (mouthbreather), leading fallom, the 1337!57 who had started it all, to concede, y0ur 1337 0wnz0r5 m1n3. 1 4dm17 d3f347 (the 0r5 is usually ignored). But the most typographically impressive comment came from eunoia:  £==7§¶=@/‹ ¿‡<=§ µ= @ 3@§§¿>= #=@Ð@(c)#= . (Hints: = is E, ‡ is I, > and < are both V.) A bit cranky, but anyone over 40 who's gotten this far will no doubt agree.

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