I don’t know why I care, but I do.
The sudden web-mainstreaming of “LOLCATS”, or “Image Macros”, inevitably leads to a discussion of the genesis of this weird way or writing stuff, which leads to some mention of “Leetspeak”, which then collapses into a pile of speculative jelly as to where the hell all this weird writing style came from.
“LOLCATS” itself has one general goal at this point: to drive traffic towards advertising. Good luck finding any site that isn’t caked around the little bastards with ads of every stripe; I sure couldn’t. Even BoingBoing, which resembles a NASCAR entrant these days, gets a bit of the tasty pie. Personally, I dig the whole fucking-around-with-images-and-adding-text thing; it’s been around for a very long time in various amounts and when it’s funny, it’s really funny. Like any fast food, it’s not good to make it your steady diet, but it doesn’t hurt to jump into the stupid and make stupid angels every once in a while.
But the whole “Whence does come the Leetspeak” question is always handled kind of oddly, although I’m happy to say that it appears the knee-jerk response is no longer that it was invented 5 minutes ago. People harken back to 2001, to 1995, to 1988… not bad! Wrong, but not bad.
The cultural attitudes and some of the early slang behind leet can be traced to the 1970s and early 1980s, the heyday of the phone phreak era. During that era, individuals and informal groups sought to explore the public telephone system in the U.S., often to make illegal long-distance telephone calls. The most proficient individuals in the phone phreak subculture received recognition and status that enabled them to become cultural bellwethers.
When computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) became available in the 1980s, phone phreak culture gained a written medium in the online exchanges that were often so slow and clumsy that users would shorten words or phrases to be able to send messages more conveniently. For example, ‘you are’ or ‘your’ could be shortened to u r or ur.
Short leet forms are commonly observed today in SMS Latest News about SMS (Short Message Service) text messages composed on mobile phones. The popularity of leetish truncations on SMS is driven by the keyboard designs on most mobile phones. While computer users have access to full QWERTY keyboards, on most mobile phone keypads each button is shared by three letters. Little keypads encourage leet.
Uses of leet that substitute numbers and punctuation marks for letters can be traced to the 1980s when bulletin board administrators sought to discourage the use of BBSs for the storage and distribution of pornography and stolen software. To circumvent BBS restrictions, spellings and words were altered by some BBS users. Enduring relics from that era are the leet terms pr()n and pr0n, which signify pornography.
Another relic is the translation of the word hacker, which was banned by some BBS administrators. Initial leetspeak translations to hack0r or h4cker led to filtering and bans on those leet terms, pushing leetspeakers to develop more obscure, less recognizable translations such as h4x0r and |-|^><()|z.
To his credit, this is listed as an “opinion” piece, not an academic work, and so he feels absolutely no responsibility to cite any sources for this belief. The fact that Wikipedia then cites this speculation in a manner that makes it look like it’s an informed statement shouldn’t be a huge jaw-dropper either.
I care about this because I spend so much time collecting BBS stuff, and to watch someone randomly make up sources for these things and reasons that I’ve never heard of ever, it’s just a tad frustrating.
I’ve got an entire directory of printouts from circa 1980s BBSes, early stuff, which shows that nobody was trying to get around any sort of filtering system. Crap-ass ideas like trying to regulate your users to that level are spotty at best in BBS history. And it certainly didn’t stop people from talking in that way.
I traced the meaning of “K-Rad” some time ago. I found the specific place it came from. Watching the entirely made-up histories of the phrase show how tenuous a connection can be drawn between history and speculation when reading about where stuff “came from”.
LOLCATS, in case you want to play history tracing games, definitely links back to Amos and Andy and 1800s-era renditions of black language. Directly? No, but it exploits along the same lines of pseudo-infantile language portraying complicated (and not so complicated) concepts in a messed-up manner. And done right, that shit is funny! Done wrong it’s insulting and boring. Actually, sometimes it’s done right and is BOTH insulting and funny.
And you can cite that!
Anyway, I can definitely tell you that the weird “1 for I”, “0 for O” stuff was already a cliche by 1984, with the Real Pirate’s Guide by Rabid Rasta mentioning this:
REAL PIRATES DON'T SAY "K-K00L", "K-AWESOME", "X10DER", "L8R0N", OR ANYTHING OF THE SORT. REAL PIRATES KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BE- TWEEN "F" AND "PH" (I.E. "PHILES", "PHUCK", "FONE", ETC.). REAL PIRATES NEVER USE TEXT GRAPHICS IN THEIR MESSAGES. REAL PIRATES DON'T SEARCH FOR NEW WAYS TO SPELL "WARES".
I spent an enormous amount of time six years ago annotating the Real Pirates’ Guide, so go enjoy that if you haven’t seen it.
The point is, primary materials abound. Stop making shit up, it drives everyone putting the primary materials online nuts. LOL.
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