ASCII by Jason Scott

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Leet —

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.

Boing Boing links to an essay by David McRaney which links to the Wikipedia article which then links to this article by Anthony Mitchell. In it, he basically pulls a theory out of thin air:

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:


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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  1. Well that Wikipedia article is just dumb. I mean, how can you go with the “l33t speak was used because it was shorter” when many of the conventions (ph for f, for example) are actually longer? And as far as getting around word filter restrictions … that’s just dumb. I’m sure there must’ve been some, but I can’t even remember most early BBS programs HAVING word filters. Any “word filters” that would have been done on my old BBSes would have to be done manually, and I’m pretty sure the average sysop could have recognized the difference between “hacker” and “h4x0r”.

    That article smells of being written by someone who “wasn’t there”. One problem with it is, it makes it seem like the average BBS would have been so large that sysops could not have kept up with every incoming post. I’m sure there were boards like that, but I can tell you back when my board had one phone line I pretty much knew who was on it and what they were doing at all times. I was dying for new posts — for years, getting people to post at all instead of running straight to the online games or file transfer areas was the problem, not people trying to circumvent weird imaginary word filters. The other problem red flag with that article was that hackers stuck with hackers and vice versa. As I mentioned in Commodork, I usually only called non-warez boards once. The minute I found out there were no warez to be found, I never called back. There were so many boards run by so many people that if you ran across one that sucked you just moved on. There was no circumventing word filters … if I ran across a BBS that didn’t let me say the word “hacker” I would have never called back.

    The first word filters I remember on BBSes were the big multiline chat boards, which would have come almost a decade after words like d00d, l33t and k-r4d came into existance.

  2. Salvia says:

    zomgz teh articulz is full of fail

  3. Ryan Russell says:

    So, back in my (ahem) BBS days, we used to call that rodent-speak. Rodents being the loser/leech/less desirable types. That would have been around 1981 and on.

    It was there before I was.

  4. Jon Shadden says:

    Too funny.

    People who used “UR” or “U R” were considered ruggies or lamers… and illiterate. They were generally harassed on the message bases until they straightened up and learned to spell.

    I never considered single letter abbreviations for whole words to be part of the BBS lexicon in any way, shape or form. It was a tool for the lazy.

  5. Shii says:

    Really, the history should read like this:

    1980s: B1FF
    2000: JeffK
    2007: LOLCATS

    Any attempts to make it more complicated than that should be shut down, as these were the only three ID-able names with any meme power.

  6. Jason Scott says:

    I dispute this, but then again I would, wouldn’t I. Just because something was big on early Internet doesn’t mean it was big or influential to later Internet.

    There’s a huge deal to deal with 4chan, Newgrounds and SomethingAwful, which become meme farms of their own. isn’t helping matters either. All can become echo chambers for new stuff.

    People always say B1FF was in the 1980s, but here’s the problem: very little citation exists because B1FF-created stuff was almost always automatically deleted! So that bit of history is tough to track. I keep trying, though.