“Leetspeak” 101: what is it exactly?

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Are you an “n00b” or a “hax0r”? “1 c4n 234d 13375p34k”, or does the preceding sentence make no sense?

No idea what we’re talking about? Then you will have to check out this guide for “leetspeak” to find out.

Prepare to be surprised or not.

What is “leetspeak”?

“Leetspeak”, otherwise known as “1337”, “133t”, “eleet”, or simply “leet” is an informal spelling method used primarily on the Internet. It often includes replacing letters in words with other characters, such as numbers, which conspicuously resemble the original letters in such a way that they are still readable by human readers.

Depending on the online community in which it is used, the “leetspeak” may also adopt its own dialect or its own linguistic varieties.

You probably know it in one form or another, with some commonly used examples including “n00b” (noob or beginner), “hax0r” (hacker), etc. More advanced examples of “leetspeak” often omit all English characters completely, leaving the resulting text unreadable to anyone not well informed on the subject.

The term itself is believed to be derived from the word “elite” and is generally 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“collective of hackers who used the term in their text files.

Although you may think that “leetspeak” is a relatively new phenomenon, it can actually trace its origins to the Bulletin Board systems (BBS) of the 1980s. These systems were similar to modern websites and tended to be operated by computer enthusiasts in the comfort of their own homes.

Each of these BBS tended to focus on a particular topic (like a hobby, etc.) chosen by the operator of the system who developed it. As you can imagine, some of these topics discussed were verboten topics, including some illegal activities, like file sharing or hacking.

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

Source: Roland Tanglao / Flickr

The reason for the development of “leetspeak” is not fully understood, but some believe it was an attempt to circumvent the text filters created by the operators of the BBS and Internet Relay Chat system to post taboo topics or banned on the forums. In this sense, it can be considered a form of encryption.

“Leetspeak” was originally the preserve of hackers, crackers and so-called script-kiddies, but has since entered the mainstream and is commonly posted on social media. The use of leetspeak allows users to talk about topics normally prohibited on public forums and chats while remaining in the spotlight.

Its early use was also used as a sort of badge of honor and to help users identify other “elite” computer nerds. Its use was also part of the registration process for certain elite or restricted groups. Its popularity increased in the 1990s, even as its primary use as an encryption became less popular.

Since then, it has become something of a joke, an interesting curiosity, or just a way to poke fun at older or less experienced users on a website or gaming service. “Leetspeak” is also commonly used for personalized online nicknames on forums and online multiplayer gaming platforms.

It is also commonly used by children and young adults to hide text filters or decrypt text messages to hide private messages between friends and avoid parental controls and spying on their private messages.

What are some examples of “leetspeak”?

Over time, the “leetspeak” has also evolved into a variety of shapes, all of which share the characteristic of using numbers and letters in combination. Other forms, as mentioned earlier, also include a variety of special characters.

The first and most common form, “1337”, is widely regarded as the purest form of “leetspeak”. It’s the one you’re probably most familiar with and usually consists of numbers and a few special characters, if any. For example, the word “beginner” can be written as “8391NN32”.

Another popular version of “leetspeak” is called UCE. Meaning unsolicited commercial email, UCE was originally used in spam emails to bypass spam filters. An example 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

|) , |] ,,, 1)

E

3, €, &, £,

F

| =, PH, | * | – | , | “,, l²

g

6, &, 9

H

#, 4, | – | ,} {,]-[ , /-/ , )-(

I

! , 1 , | , ][ , ỉ

J

_| , ¿

K

|< , |{ , |( , X

L

1 , |_ , £ , | , ][_

M

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

NOT

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

O

0, 9, (), [] , *, °, ,, {[]}

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 not have a problem “, Duñabeitia added.

Is “leetspeak” a good choice for passwords?

These days, you are probably more than familiar with the need for fairly complex passwords to prevent unauthorized access to your data online. The best passwords tend to contain a random mix of letters, numbers, symbols, and other special characters.

Companies often set very specific criteria for your passwords, such as minimum length, using a mix of upper and lower case letters and numbers, etc. Mixing them together, or having a legitimate password generator do it for you, are great ways to protect your data and identity online.

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. Leetspeak, as we have already touched on, is widely used in the field of technology and has its origins in hackers, some of whom are probably those who try to steal your data.

All passwords based on leetspeak jargon are, in theory, highly predictable to members of such a community. Hackers usually try to access private data such as your emails by guessing your password.

For this reason, you really want to avoid being predictable when choosing a password – “leetspeak”, therefore, is not a good choice.

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

  • Longer than short
  • Never contain names of people, companies, domains or anything else that can be easily guessed
  • 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. For example, “myRedBike” is better than just “bicycle”
  • Make sure to use different passwords for each website and web account. It’s obviously annoying to follow, but it keeps all of your accounts from being hacked in one fell swoop. In other words, don’t keep all of your eggs in one “password basket”.

And this “elite” is your lot for today. This is just a taste of the complex and rapidly developing world of “leetspeak” in the wild.

If you want to know more or if you fancy learning to read “leetspeak”, there are many resources online to teach you. Alternatively, you can join a ethical hacker community and get taught by first-hand experts.

Good luck there and stay safe.

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