LOL! OMG WYD? Let’s talk L337!
“Lol! Omg, Hey Fam Wyd?” For many, this English sentence is entirely readable and conveys meaning to most people. These slang abbreviations are a commonplace. But where did this all begin? To look at one possible origin for this slang we need to take a trip back in time. To the 80s!
Oh the 80’s; from the hairdos and scrunchies, to the Mod rockers, we all have something that stands out to us when we think about that time period. One thing that stands out as well is the tech boom that was computing. These devices at first were exclusive to the classic stereotype of someone looking like they stepped right out of a Revenge of the Nerds movie. However, I would argue that these nerd pioneers were the ones that led the way for the text speech we use today. At the time, in order to use computers, you had to be well versed in the coding to accomplish things. Coding languages, just like any have their own syntax and structure, which gave rise to a different kind of slang used primarily online. Its name, Leet or L337.
While the origins of Leet are argued a bit, many linguists can pinpoint the use of the language to an exclusive, elite set of coders and hackers from the 80s. These “elite”, spelled l337 in Leet speak, would combine English words with numerical patterns and abbreviation to convey meaning in a coded manner. Like any in-group slang this was developed to help convey that you were apart of these “elite” hackers/coders. As the popularity of computers took off and we began to see gaming enter the mix. As many of those who already used Leet were common to be gamers, abbreviations and numerical replacements of English letters were common and more terms began to surface like, “gg” (good game), “n3wb” (inexperienced player), “w007” (woot/yay), and “B4N” (bye for now).
As the popularity of gaming with computers took off, so did online venues for interactions with people online. These interactions were commonly done on forums, blogs, and chatrooms. The same principals of those first “elite” users also were adopted by basic computer users in these community spaces. Usually, one would not type out full sentences in communicating and the use of abbreviations was prevalent. While the first exact instance of “lol” isn’t known, the first large group of users of the slang can be traced back to a 1980’s forum called Usenet.
Technology naturally progressed and these multimodal communication methods came into the palm of our hands in the form of cell phones, where naturally, texts followed suit of these online communicating principals. So, I would argue that it’s no wonder the synchrony between text communications and Leet is uncanny. As a linguist, I find myself constantly searching the deep dark spaces of reddit to stay on top of these language trends. For linguists, I think that it is incredibly important that we continue to collect and create corpora to document these language choices as they are, in my opinion, going to be a large driver for language change in the future. Especially because now-a-days online communications spark new language uses at a rate that is incredibly fast and the larger the community that uses these new phrases, words, or memes create less value to these new language uses, and the online world is on to the next one.