Leet (or ‘1337’), short for ‘elite,’ also known as leetspeak, is an alternative alphabet for the English language that is used primarily on the Internet. It uses various combinations of ASCII characters to replace Latinate letters. For example, leet spellings of the word leet include 1337 and l33t; eleet may be spelled 31337 or 3l33t.

The term is derived from the word ‘elite.’ Leet may also be considered a substitution cipher, although many dialects or linguistic varieties exist in different online communities. The term ‘leet’ is also used as an adjective to describe formidable prowess or accomplishment, especially in the fields of online gaming and in its original usage, computer hacking.

Leet originated within bulletin board systems (BBS) in the 1980s, where having ‘elite’ status on a BBS allowed a user access to file folders, games, and special chat rooms. One theory is that it was developed to defeat text filters created by BBS or Internet Relay Chat (IRC) system operators for message boards to discourage the discussion of forbidden topics, like cracking (defeating computer security). Creative misspellings and ASCII-art-derived words were also a way to attempt to indicate one was knowledgeable about the culture of computer users.

Once the reserve of hackers, crackers, and script kiddies (novices who use cracking software), leet has since entered the mainstream. It is now also used to mock newbies, or newcomers, on web sites, or in gaming communities. Some consider emoticons and ASCII art, like smiley faces, to be leet, while others maintain that leet consists of only symbolic word encryption. More obscure forms of leet, involving the use of symbol combinations and almost no letters or numbers, continue to be used for its original purpose of encrypted communication. It is also sometimes used as a script language. Variants of leet have been used for censorship purposes for many years; for instance ‘@$$’ (‘ass’ ) and ‘$#!+’ (‘shit’) are frequently seen to make a word appear censored to the untrained eye but obvious to a person familiar with leet.

One of the hallmarks of leet is its unique approach to orthography, using substitutions of other characters, letters or otherwise, to represent a letter or letters in a word. For more casual use of leet, the primary strategy is to use homoglyphs, symbols that closely resemble (to varying degrees) the letters for which they stand. The symbol chosen is flexible—anything that the reader can make sense of is valid. However, this practice is not extensively used in regular Leet; more often it is seen in situations where the argot (i.e., ‘secret language’) characteristics of the system are required, either to exclude newbies or outsiders in general,

Another use for Leet orthographic substitutions is the creation of paraphrased passwords. By using this method, one can create a relatively secure password which would still be easily remembered. Limitations imposed by websites on password length (usually no more than 36) and the characters permitted (usually alphanumeric and underscore) requires less extensive forms of Leet when used in this application.

Like other hacker slang, Leet enjoys a looser grammar than standard English. The loose grammar, just like loose spelling, encodes some level of emphasis, ironic or otherwise. A reader must rely more on intuitive parsing of Leet to determine the meaning of a sentence rather than the actual sentence structure. In particular, speakers of Leet are fond of verbing nouns, turning verbs into nouns (and back again) as forms of emphasis, e.g. ‘Austin rocks’ is weaker than ‘Austin roxxorz’ (note spelling), which is weaker than ‘Au5t1N is t3h r0xx0rz’ (note grammar), which is weaker than something like ‘0MFG D00D /\Ü571N 15 T3H l_l83Я 1337 Я0XX0ЯZ’ (‘OMG, dude, Austin is the über-elite rocks-er!’). Leet, like other hacker slang, employs analogy in construction of new words. For example, if ‘haxored’ is the past tense of the verb ‘to hack’ (hack → haxor → haxored), then winzored would be easily understood to be the past tense conjugation of ‘to win,’ even if the reader had not seen that particular word before.

Leet has its own colloquialisms, many of which originated as jokes based on common typing errors, habits of new computer users, or knowledge of Internet culture and history. Leet is not solely based upon one language or character set. Greek, Russian, Chinese, and other languages have Leet forms, and Leet in one language may use characters from another where they are available. As such, while it may be referred to as a ‘cipher,’ a ‘dialect,’ or a ‘language,’ Leet does not fit squarely into any of these categories.

The term itself is often written ‘1337,’ and many other variations. After the meaning of these became widely familiar, ‘10100111001’ came to be used in its place, because it is the binary form of 1337, making it more of a puzzle to interpret. An increasingly common characteristic of Leet is changing its grammatical usage to be deliberately incorrect. The widespread popularity of deliberate misspelling is similar to the cult following of the ‘All your base are belong to us’ meme. Indeed, the online and computer communities have been international from their inception, so spellings and phrases typical of non-native speakers are quite common.

Many words originally derived from Leet slang have now become part of the modern Internet slang, such as ‘pwned.’ The original driving force of new vocabulary in Leet were common misspellings and typing errors such as ‘teh’ (generally considered lolspeak), and intentional misspellings, especially the ‘z’ at the end of words (‘skillz’). Another prominent example of a surviving Leet expression is ‘w00t,’ an exclamation of joy. W00t is sometimes used as a backronym for ‘We owned the other team.’

New words (or corruptions thereof) may arise from a need to make one’s username unique. As any given Internet service reaches more people, the number of names available to a given user is drastically reduced. While many users may wish to have the username ‘CatLover,’ for example, in many cases it is only possible for one user to have the moniker. As such, degradations of the name may evolve, such as ‘C@7L0vr.’ As the Leet cipher is highly dynamic, there is a wider possibility for multiple users to share the ‘same’ name, through combinations of spelling and transliterations.

Additionally, leet—the word itself—can be found in the screennames and gamertags of many Internet and video games. Use of the term in such a manner announces a high level of skill, though such an announcement may be seen as baseless hubris.

‘Warez’ is a plural shortening of ‘software,’ typically referring to pirated software. ‘Phreaking’ refers to the hacking of telephone systems and other non-Internet equipment. ‘Teh’ originated as a typographical error of ‘the,’ and is sometimes spelled ‘t3h.’ Also, from German, is ‘über,’ which represents a quality of superiority; it usually appears as a prefix attached to adjectives.

‘Haxor,’ and derivations thereof, is Leet for ‘hacker,’ and it is one of the most commonplace examples of the use of the -xor suffix. ‘Suxxor’ (pronounced ‘suck-zor’) is a derogatory term which originated in warez culture and is currently used in multi-user environments such as multiplayer video games and instant messaging; it, like haxor, is one of the early Leet words to use the -xor suffix. Suxxor is a modified version of ‘sucks,’ and the meaning is the same as the English slang. Its negative definition essentially makes it the opposite of roxxor, and both can be used as a verb or a noun.

Owned and pwn3d (generally pronounced ‘Owned’ ‘poened’) both refer to the domination of a player in a video game or argument (rather than just a win), or the successful hacking of a website or computer. As in a common characteristic of Leet, the terms have also been adapted into noun and adjective forms, ‘ownage’ and ‘pwnage,’ which can refer to the situation of pwning or to the superiority of its subject (e.g., ‘He is a very good player; he is pwnage’).

‘Pr0n’ is slang for pornography. This is a deliberately inaccurate spelling/pronunciation for porn, where a zero is often used to replace the letter O. It is sometimes used in legitimate communications (such as email discussion groups, Usenet, chat rooms, and internet web pages) to circumvent language and content filters, which may reject messages as offensive or spam. The word also helps prevent search engines from associating commercial sites with pornography, which might result in unwelcome traffic. Pr0n is also sometimes spelled backwards (‘n0rp’) to further obscure the meaning to potentially uninformed readers.


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