Do you speak geek?

For n00bs, internet chat can often be snarky and sometimes downright leet. If you’re feeling confused, it’s time to learn the lingo. Anna Leach reports on how the web is rewriting the dictionary

Wednesday 18 February 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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If someone sent you an email and wrote “kthxbai”, “NSFW” or “w00t!” in it, would you understand their meaning, or run for the dictionary? All three are standard webspeak – the first, an example of “lolspeak”, emerged thanks to the cult website devoted |to pictures of cats, icanhascheez This slang has evolved from misspelt captions on animal pics, to a fully fledged language that embodies an attitude particular to the net: cute anarchism that takes playful swipes at the establishment.

That’s the establishment as represented by grammar purists. But what’s the harm in playing around with language? According to David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, the percolation of niche online dialects into the mainstream is threatening the survival of intelligent discourse. His target in particular is another kind of online speech – “snark”.

“Snark”, Denby tells us in his new book, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, is “a tone of snide, undermining abuse, nasty and knowing, that is spreading through the media”. Harboured in gossip sites such as Perez Hilton and Popbitch, snark, Denby says, now flavours everything from everyday conversation to music reviews.

Snark, lolspeak and “leet”, the language of gamers and hackers, do share a certain pointlessness. Why misuse verb conjugations? Why say that Jessica Simpson is fat, as the Gawker website crowed recently, when she’s a size 12? Fingered by Denby in his book, Gawker is Snark Central, priding itself on picking up dirty stories and putting out cruel jibes. Why write “n00b” for “newbie”, or “l33t” for “élite”? So that only a limited number of perversely minded people will understand you.

Because that’s what slang is all about, says Jonathon Green, editor of the Chambers Slang Dictionary. “BBC English is what the establishment speaks. Slang is the language that intentionally does the opposite. We are hard-wired as humans to take the piss – we do it politically and socially, and we do it linguistically.” And the internet speeds the process up. “Fifty years ago, if you invented a word it would take approximately 20 years to get it into the dictionary. Now you can invent something and it’s all over the net in days,” says David Crystal, a professor of linguistics and author of Language and the Internet.

Snark’s targets are celebrities, the opinionated, and other snarkers. From skewering wit, to bitter mini-feuds on the comments sections of websites, snark is widespread online. Lady Snark, also known as A C Kemp, a lecturer in English language studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion: Lady Snark’s Guide to Common Discourtesy, explains the appeal: “Snark is actually quite an old word, but it wasn’t widely used before blogs. Part of the reason it’s so popular is that, even if it’s primarily negative, it can be a way of having your opinion validated and making you feel part of a group,” she says.

Meanwhile, Professor Crystal suggests that lolspeak is actually rather high-minded. “It’s like a literary style – bending the normal rules of language to create particular effects – more like James Joyce than anything else.”

At the root of all internet dialects is leet, the most impenetrable of them all. Leet was what hackers and gamers spoke to each other on bulletin boards back in the 1990s. Since then, it has grown and morphed, hitting a peak in 2005. “Leet”, often spelt “l33t”, is, as mentioned, a phonetic version of the word “elite”, a reference to the technocrats who used it. Leet grew in chat rooms as a means of creating a linguistic in-crowd that excluded uninitiated newcomers, or “n00bs”.

A combination of typos, computer-game references and tech jargon, leet is intentionally baffling. It is also the common ancestor of lolspeak and snark: lolspeak has inherited its linguistic tinkering, while snark has taken on the ethos of the egotistical put-down. “To make leet,” says Kat Hannaford, news editor of T3 magazine’s website, “you manipulate language by adding -xor or -age on the end of words.” Some leet words, such as “w00t” (hooray) and “I have skillz” are becoming mainstream, while other words and phrases reflect the preoccupation of the élite with putting down n00bs, or the analogous pleasure-rush of hacking someone else’s computer system. “Elite speakers are arrogant,” Hannaford says. “There’s a lot of ego in leetspeak.”

However, according to Professor Crystal, none of these net dialects are going to replace standard English. “Whenever we get a new technology, there are always people playing around with it, creating fads that become fashionable in certain crowds. Lolspeak isn’t how most people communicate on the net, these languages are the exception.” And grammar purists need not panic, either, he says: “Leetspeak won’t last for ever. It’s just one of the internet’s growing pains.”

Vocabulary 2.0: Word wide web


Lolspeak for “OK, thank you, goodbye”


Lolspeak for eat, so “nomming” is eating


Not suitable for work, typically used on snarky sites such as Perez Hilton to warn readers of explicit material


Snark for “whatever”, meaning “I don’t care”


Leet for “awesomeness”, substituting numbers for letters


Leet for bad/frustrating – 404 is the error message on screen when a computer fails to connect to the net


Misspelling of “own” used by hackers, now used to humiliate a rival as in “I pwn you”

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