1337 or leet spelled out with Nixie tubes.
Mark D. Adams/Shutterstock

The internet’s full of weird words like “1337” and “hax0r.” These are forms of leetspeak, a stylistic way of typing that’s been around since the 80s. But why was leetspeak invented, and how do you use it?

English Words Spelled with Numbers and Symbols

Leetspeak is an internet phenomenon that predates the World Wide Web. It’s a style of typing that replaces English letters with similar-looking numbers or symbols, and its closely tied to early hacking and gaming culture.

You’ve probably run into some of the more common examples of leetspeak, like 1337 (leet), n00b (noob or newbie), and hax0r (hacker). But these are just the most basic forms of leetspeak. Advanced leetspeak often omits any English characters, and it can look a bit like this: |D|_3453 |-|3|_|D /\\/\\3.

Leetspeak is nearly forty years old, and it isn’t relevant to modern internet conversation or culture. Using leetspeak today is like saying “dude” in a hippie’s voice, and most people stick with basic, legible leetspeak to avoid confusing people (or looking like a dork).

Where Did Leetspeak Come From?

During the early 80s (before the launch of the World Wide Web), computer users connected via bulletin board systems (BBS). These BBSes were similar to modern websites, and computer hobbyists usually operated them in their own homes.

BBSes usually centered around a topic or hobby chosen by the system operator. So it’s only natural that some BBSes focused on illegal activities, like file sharing and early forms of hacking. They were sometimes called elite boards (or leet boards), and they spawned an “elite” computer subculture.

A desk full of floppy disks, old computer hardware, and crumpled up paper.

This is where leetspeak comes in. Elite BBS users invented leetspeak as a sort of cipher. On public boards and chats, leetspeak was used to talk about nefarious topics that went against the rules. It was also used to get around the automatic censorship programs that ran on most public BBSes (a BBS might censor any mention of “porn,” but it won’t notice “pr0n”).

Leetspeak was also used to identify other elite computer nerds, and it was used in the registration process for some elite groups (to weed out anyone who wasn’t a hax0r). The use of leetspeak as a cipher continued into the 90s, where it was used as a calling card by the Cult of the Dead Cow.

This isn’t to say that leetspeak should be taken seriously, but it did serve a purpose for a while. That purpose (a cipher) started to erode in the 90s, and leetspeak devolved into a weird joke. Some people used it to mock children online while other people used it to mock nerdy internet subcultures. Today, leetspeak is basically the internet equivalent of talking in a surfer’s voice.

How to Use Leetspeak (Gosh, You Really Want To?)

A man stares at his computer and tries to decipher some leet speak.

Gosh, you really want to use leetspeak? Alright, different strokes.

Leetspeak is the act of replacing alphabetic characters with similar-looking numbers and symbols (leet looks similar to 1337 or l33t, etc.). In the past, it was meant to be nearly illegible, and it often included loads of obnoxious symbols (|_!|<3 7|-|!5) that are a pain to read or type. But now it’s used as a joke, so you should try to make your leetspeak as legible as possible.

Legible leetspeak is often just a mix of letters and numbers (no weird symbols). When you want to use leetspeak, simply replace some of the letters in your words with numbers (like 3 in place of E). You can even throw in some classic leet words, like hax0r, pr0n, or z0mg.

If you want to take things a step further (or spend less time writing out basic l33t sp34k), then just use the Universal Leet Converter tool. It’s like Google Translate for leetspeak, and it’s less of a mental burden than typing things out manually.

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
Read Full Bio »