Day 819: How To Talk Like A Geek, Circa 1993

originally published March 29, 2014

As romantically as it may roll from the tongue, the notion of September, 1993 being referred to as “the Eternal September” is far from the fodder for another Nicholas Sparks melodramatic novel (which he has no doubt penned in the time it has taken me to write this opening sentence). The Eternal September is a gripe, not a blessing. It’s a common kvetch among those in the cyber-know, or the Information Age hipsters. You know, those folks who swooned to their telephonic modem’s screech before it was cool to do so.

Back in the days when the online population consisted of hackers, crackers and e-thwackers, September was traditionally the month they’d have to endure a fresh crop of newbies – the fall-semester college crowd who had been granted Usenet access through their schools. These kids would swarm all over the discussion forums, staining each one with the stench of their inexperience.

Perhaps it has something to do with the primordial netizens’ having been burdened with the label of the outcast in their offline lives, I don’t know. Maybe the hackers of yore didn’t want anyone new in their clubhouse. It’s also entirely possible the college Usenet crowd was obnoxious and foul, dropping into the alt.2600 forum and asking if someone can teach them to hack into Visa’s server and clear off their credit card debt.

It was standard September procedure to put up with these newbies until they either learned the protocols or dropped out from lack of interest. Then these bastards changed it all:

In September of 1993, AOL started offering Usenet access to its users as part of their early efforts to dominate the entire webosphere. The so-called ‘Eternal September’ meant that not only did the Usenet insiders from the green-screen era have to contend with a new batch of fall freshmen, they’d be fending off every Johnny and Janie Schmuckstein who plugged in a free AOL trial CD just to see what all the fuss was about.

When Usenet went mainstream – and that’s when I jumped on board, mostly to cruise through the Beatles discussion forum to eavesdrop on fans who spent more time calling each other Nazi pedophiles than talking about music – the pioneers needed some way to preserve the nobility of their antiquity. Some way to pick one another from a crowd of text characters, to identify their brothers and sisters who had been online back when Night Court was still on TV.

And just like that, a lingo was born. A lingo called 1337.

If you’ve been online for long enough you have probably seen this garble of letters and numbers somewhere. This is the primordial speak that eventually gave birth to such Oxford Dictionary-friendly terms as ‘LOL’, ‘OMG’ and ‘WTF’. It’s likely that this odd tweak of online communication came not from an attempt at elitism, but more as a means of subverting filters in chat rooms. This was a time when bulletin board or IRC system operators would plant text filters to weed out forbidden topics (like hacking into Visa’s server to clear off one’s credit card debt, for example).

The jargon was called ‘leet’, which is a truncated form of ‘elite-speak’. Elite status on a bulletin board service meant special access to certain folders (probably porn), games (probably erotic) and chat rooms (probably about Night Court). The jargon involves plunking in numbers in place of letters, so ‘LEET’ becomes ‘1337’. You’ve really got to bend your visual imagination around this language, but once it caught on it became that secret badge of online experience that the cyber-veterans had been looking for.

Along with the myriad of letter/number alternatives, leet quickly developed words of its own. ‘Pr0n’ was an early entry, a shorthand for ‘pornography’ that not only swaps a zero for the letter ‘o’ but also invokes an intentional typo. Plus, saying it out loud kind of makes me hungry for cocktail sauce. ‘N00b’ is short for ‘newbie’, ‘warez’ stands for ‘software’ and ‘w00t’ is a triumphant exclamation of joy. These are all pretty self-explanatory, and wouldn’t have been too hard to decipher for a newcomer.

The term ‘pwned’ – as in, “The Seahawks defense totally pwned Denver’s offense in the Super Bowl because…” well, fuck it, I had money on that game – is a morsel of later-era leet, having risen to the height of its popularity about ten years ago. Its pronunciation is unclear – some say ‘powned’ while other acknowledge the leet term’s roots as an intentional typo of ‘owned’ and keep the ‘p’ silent.

Perhaps the most common typo, at least for the split-second before your word processor auto-corrects it, ‘teh’ is another piece of leetspeak that could be found scattered around 90’s-era Usenet forums like obnoxious zits. ‘Teh’ has the power to turn any word into an intensified noun, which can then act as a superlative. So to say, “This is teh suck” would be another way of stating “This is the suckiest.” It may sound juvenile and twisted, but this new medium had to breed some form of new lexicon. It was what it was.

For someone first stepping into the waters of online communication in the 90’s, the abbreviations could be rather daunting. No doubt someone was keeping a detailed translation guide on some webpage somewhere, but Googling was not second nature to us – in fact Google didn’t even exist back then. I had to ask someone in order to find out that ‘TTYL’ meant ‘Talk To You Later’ ‘G2G’ meant ‘Got To Go’ and ‘OMGRWIBIGWH!!!!’ meant ‘Oh My God, Robin Williams Is Brilliant In Good Will Hunting!!!!’. It was a steep curve.

What began as a language to separate the ‘elite’ from the fresh-faced yokels online was eventually ported to text-speak – the linguistic shortcuts which are splattered across teenage text messages and which no doubt stoke the frustrated ire of high school English teachers everywhere. The jargon of the old-timers has bubbled under and become the shorthand of the masses. If you own a cellphone and you’ve texted another human – and no, this doesn’t include everyone… hi mom! – you have probably slipped at the very least an LOL into your outgoing communication. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though I’d advise using it honestly and only employing the term when you actually laugh out loud.

There is no longer anything elite about leet. I’m sure the cyber-geriatrics who still remember the days of plopping their telephone receiver upon their modem whilst rocking out to A Flock of Seagulls have found a new way to differentiate themselves from the unwashed masses, but the masses have taken control. Our online status can no longer be judged by the lingo we choose because we’re all seasoned veterans now.

We may still be in the depths of Eternal September, but when it comes down to it, who cares about August anymore?

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