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Leetspeak or leet is a substitution cipher created by computer users by replacing Latin letters with various codes that are meant to imply the same thing. The term is derived from the word “elite,” and leetspeak was originally used by computer hackers. The concept has entered the mainstream, and is now used by gamers, in instant messaging, and text messaging.
Leetspeak originated in early internet systems, where having elite access allowed a user to get into public-prohibited files, such as pirated software, pornography, and instructions on how to build explosives. Some believe that the replacement of letters allowed users to discuss hacking programs without alerting text filters. The language quickly evolved into a mark of a knowledgeable user. The rules of leet have been challenged since its inception, with some speakers claiming that smiley-face emoticons and other code-created artwork count as part of the language, while purists insist leetspeak is for word encryption only.
The language has maintained its use as a method for establishing the elite from the beginner or casual user. Frequently, leetspeak is used in chat rooms or online gaming to insult or exclude “newbies,” often called “n00bs.” Moreover, as the encryption changes from person to person, advanced speakers who are familiar with each other can use ever-more complex versions ciphers in attempts to exclude new users.
Leet primarily uses homographic substitution, letting similar looking letters, numbers and graphic representation stand in for the proper language letter. For example, in the term “n00b,” the number key for zero replaces the letter “o.” Numbers are frequently used, including in the name of the language, which is often written as “L33t” or “1337.”
The guidelines of leet suggest that anything that the user can explain as a valid substitution is permitted. Often, assuming that beginning users will not know how to flip text upside-down or access American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) characters, leetspeakers will use these to proclaim their knowledge. More recently, leet users use back and front slash computer keys to build graphic representation of letters, such as “//\\//\\” for the letter “m.” Also, some may use phonetic representations, for instance “cee” for “c” and “jay” for “j”.
As the language has evolved, several leet specific words and suffixes have been created and become part of leet mainstream. “Xor” and “zor” are often used to replace the “er” and “r” endings that indicate the subject of a noun, such as “haxxor” for hacker. In an interesting throwback to poetic style, words ending in “ed” often replace the “e” with an apostrophe, as in “belov’d.” Two accidental but common misspellings have made their way into common dialect, “teh” for “the” and the gamer-derived “pwned” for “owned.” This last one is commonly used in reference for severely beating someone or getting beaten, as in “I pwned you in that last game.”
Serious computer users are divided on leet. While some find it both an immature distracting, and destructive attack on the English language, others see it as the mark of an evolving computer culture. As leetspeak is adapted into the mainstream, its use as a tool of exclusion fades.
Although it has been the subject of many editorials on the collapse of proper grammar, leetspeak is gaining some attention as a truly unique language, developing on user-specific levels and spreading across the online community. Several online translators now exist, offering many different ways to convert plain text to leet. While it may never be acceptable in a term paper, leetspeak is an interesting language phenomenon, w3|| w0r7h w47ch1n6 (well worth watching.)
If for nothing else, leet speak or 1337 5p34k is useful in making computer passwords a bit harder to crack. If you substitute numbers for certain letters and throw in some purposeful misspellings and symbols (provided your password system allows symbols), almost any common phrase becomes a much more formidable and secure passkey.