‘Leetspeak’ 101: what exactly is it?

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Are you “n00b” or a “hax0r”? “1 c4n 234d 13375p34k” or is the previous sentence completely meaningless?

Don’t know what we’re talking about? Then you need to check out this leetspeak guide to find out.

Prepare to be surprised or not.

What is “Leetspeak”?

“Leetspeak”, also known as “1337”, “133t”, “eleet” or just “leet” is an informal spelling that is mainly used on the Internet. It often involves replacing letters in words with other characters, such as numbers, that are so similar to the original letters that they are still legible to the human reader.

Depending on the online community in which it is used, “leetspeak” can also adopt its own dialect or language variants.

You are probably familiar with it in some way, with common examples like “n00b” (noob or newbie), “hax0r” (hacker), etc. More advanced examples of “leetspeak” often omit all English characters entirely, leaving the resulting text is illegible for anyone who is not familiar with the subject.

The term itself is believed to be derived from the word “elite” and is typically associated with online gaming and hacking communities. It is widely believed that the term was first coined by members of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective who used the term in their text files.

While you might think that “leetspeak” is a relatively new phenomenon, it may actually trace its origins back to the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) of the 1980s. These systems resembled modern websites and were usually operated by computer hobbyists from the comfort of their homes.

Each of these BBSs tended to focus on a specific topic (like a hobby, etc.) selected by the system operator who developed them. As expected, some of these topics were discussed forbidden Topics, including certain illegal activities such as file sharing or hacking.

A user with the status “Elite” has access to file folders, games and special chat rooms within these systems.

Source: Roland Tanglao / Flickr

The reason leetspeak was created is not fully understood, but some believe it was an attempt to bypass text filters created by BBS and Internet Relay Chat system operators to address taboo or forbidden topics on message boards publish. In this sense, it can be viewed as a form of cipher.

“Leetspeak” was originally reserved for hackers, crackers and so-called script kiddies, but has since established itself in the mainstream and is often posted on social media. Using leetspeak allows users to talk about normally prohibited topics in public forums and chats while staying in sight.

Its early use was also used as a kind of badge of honor and to help users identify other “elite” computer nerds. Its use was also part of the registration process for some elite or restricted groups. Its popularity grew in the 1990s, although its primary use as a cipher became less popular.

Since then, it has grown into some kind of joke, interesting curiosity, or simply a means of mocking older or less experienced users on a website or gaming service. “Leetspeak” is also widely used for personalized online nicknames in forums and online multiplayer gaming platforms.

It is also widely used by children and younger adults to obfuscate text filters or decrypt text messages to mask private messages between friends and avoid parental controls and spying on their private messages.

What are some examples of “leetspeak”?

Over time, “leetspeak” has also evolved into a variety of shapes, all of which have the property of using numbers and letters in combination. As mentioned earlier, other forms also contain a variety of special characters.

The first and most common form “1337” is generally considered to be the purest form of “Leetspeak”. This is probably the most familiar to you and usually consists of numbers and few, if any, special characters. For example, the word “beginner” can be written as “8391NN32”.

Another common version of “leetspeak” is called UCE. UCE stands for unsolicited commercial email and was originally used in spam email to bypass spam filters. An example of this would be “/ – | 3 $ 0 | _ _ / ‘][‘€” to denote the word “absolute”. 

Another common version of “leetspeak” is something called “Ultra 1337”. Comprised of pretty much only special characters, to the uninitiated, this can be quite hard to understand. An example would be “£}{|²3®´][´” to represent the word “expert”. 

Yet another similar system to “leetspeak” exists that replaces letters with similar accented ones from a foreign language. While not technically  “leetspeak”, it follows similar logic and is usually readily decipherable by a human reader. Its use is primarily to obfuscate spam filters and text-based filtering. 

It is important to note that there are no formalized grammatical rules for “leetspeak”, meaning users have a lot of legroom when it comes to using it. That being said, there are some common symbols, numbers, and characters often used for each letter of the alphabet. 

Common examples include:

Letter

Possible “leetspeak” replacements

A

4 , @ , / , /- , ? , ^ , α , λ

B

8 , |3 , ß , l³ , 13 , I3 , J3

C

( , [ , < , © , ¢

D

|) , |] , Ð, đ, 1)

E.

3, €, &, £,

F.

| =, PH, | * | – | , | “, ƒ, l²

G

6, &, 9

H

#, 4, | – | ,} {,]-[ , /-/ , )-(

I

! , 1 , | , ][ , ỉ

J

_| , ¿

K

|< , |{ , |( , X

L

1 , |_ , £ , | , ][_

M

// , /v , |V| , ]V[ , |/| , AA , []V[] , | 11, / | , ^^, (V), | Y | ,! /!

No

| | , / /, / V, | V, / /, | 1, 2,? , (), 11, r,! !

Ö

0, 9, (), [] , *, °, , ø, {[]}

P.

9, | °, p, |>, | *, []D,][D , |² , |? , |D

Q

0_ , 0,

R

2 , |2 , 1² , ® , ? , я , 12 , .-

S

5 , $ , § , ? , ŝ , ş

T

7 , + , † , ‘][‘ , |

U

|_| , µ , [_] , v

V

/, | /, | , ‘

W.

/ /, VV, A /, ‘, uu, ^ /, | /, uJ

X

>

Y

`/ , °/ , ¥

Z

z , 2 , “/_

How can we read “leetspeak”?

Basic, more legible (sometimes termed Level 1) “leetspeak”, contrary to what some memes would have you believe, should be readily readable by most people. The readability is not some magical ability but is more to do with how our brains work, after years of training to read text.

Previously it was believed that experienced readers were able to skip over words or read just parts of words, and their brains would automatically fill in the rest. More recent studies have shown that this may not actually be the case. 

Researchers now believe that we process the text using letter-by-letter processing that allows us to rapidly identify different words and access an inbuilt “databank” of sounds to understand and verbalize them (if needed) — all in milliseconds. 

This is why experienced readers can very rapidly see the difference between “casual” and “causal”, or “grill” and “girl”, or be able to readily distinguish between “primeval” from “prime evil”. 

Given this, you may wonder how we are able to read things like “leetspeak” when letters have been strategically replaced with numbers or symbols. If we read by processing each letter, in turn, to build the full words in our minds, shouldn’t this system fail when presented with a completely different, unexpected, character? 

leetspeak poster
Source: Donald Trung Quoc Don/Wikimedia Commons

It appears our brain is able to correct for such unexpected errors on the fly, converting unexpected characters or symbols to their corresponding expected letters in short order. 

In fact, this has been the subject of various scientific studies.

One Spanish researcher, Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, who is an expert on such matters, said in an interview that, “while reading, you don’t pay attention to the difference between a number and a letter because you only expect letters.”

A similar thing happens when your read wrongly written, or strangely written text — like someone with bad handwriting, for example. Your brain, essentially, gets the gist of the message (after processing the characters in sequence) and replaces the odd characters to make the text legible. 

“For your brain, it’s not a number in a word, it’s a wrongly written or strangely written letter,” Duñabeitia explained. “You are in this mode of tolerance that allows for small distortions in the identity of the letters.”

Therefore, there is no reason to suspect that being able to read  “leetspeak” requires a particular level of intelligence. However, it is probably likely that better readers are slightly more adept at it, according to Duñabeitia.

What seems to be more important is your experience with computers, different typographical types (like different fonts), etc. Those who have been using computers (and the internet) from a young age will likely find deciphering “leetspeak” almost second nature. 

leetspeak pwn
Source: Remy Sharp/Flickr

“But as long as we are proficient readers, [you] will have no problem “, Duñabeitia added.

Is “leetspeak” a good choice for passwords?

In this day and age, you are probably more than familiar with the need for fairly complex passwords to prevent unauthorized access to your online content. The best passwords usually contain a random mix of letters, numbers, symbols, and other special characters.

Companies often have very specific criteria for their passwords, such as: B. the minimum length, the use of a mixture of upper and lower case letters and numbers, etc. These combinations or hiring a legitimate password generator are excellent ways to protect your passwords, data and identity on the Internet.

For this reason, you may think that using leetspeak to create your passwords might be a good idea.

Think again!

And the reason is pretty obvious when you think about it. As mentioned earlier, Leetspeak is rife in the technology and dates back to hackers – some of whom are likely trying to steal your data.

All passwords based on “leetspeak” jargon are theoretically very predictable to members of such a community. Hackers often try to gain access to private information like your email by guessing your password.

Because of this, you really want to avoid being predictable when choosing a password – so “leetspeak” is not a good choice.

If you want to make sure that your online passwords are as secure as possible, follow best practices. There is no such thing as an unbreakable password, but a rule of thumb is to make sure your passwords are as follows:

  • Longer rather than shorter
  • Never include names of people, companies, domains, or anything else that is easy to guess
  • Never contain things like “password”, “abc”, “12345”, “asdf” etc.
  • Use as diverse a collection of different characters as possible – the more complex the better
  • Can be structured as a passphrase rather than a word. Eg “myRedBike” is better than just “Bicycle”
  • Make sure you use different passwords for each website and web account. Obviously this is annoying to keep track of, but it prevents all of your accounts from being hacked at once. In other words, don’t keep all of your eggs in a “password basket”.

And these “elites” are your lot for today. This is just a taste of the complex and rapidly evolving world of “leetspeak” in the wild.

If you’re looking to learn more or read leetspeak, there are plenty of online resources to teach you. Alternatively, join an ethical online hacker community and be taught firsthand by the experts.

Good luck out there and stay healthy.



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