language change and slang

Pwn leet: a dynamic sublanguage and internet phenomenon. Part 2.

Written by Jonathan Cole

Language changes faster than most of us can keep up with. The average person has a vocabulary of about 50,000 words, so with the much hyped arrival of the millionth word in the English language, we all have a lot of work to do. Let’s start with pwn. This is the second of two posts about the sublanguage, Leet. The first post can be found here.

Pwn (derived from own)  and used widely in online games, is a popular term meaning ownership or to remove ones status or importance (to dominate). Here you can find the various pronunciations.

We were totally pwn3d by teh dragon

Note the supporting use of a common typo teh now canonized in Leet. I also added some young, hip flavor with the entirely superfluous addition of ‘totally’ in an intensifying adverbial role. While pwn is not in The dictionary, it is certainly in widespread use online and does appear in the Urban Dictionary. Most of us will never use the term, but its origins shed some light on how and why (sub) languages are changing.

The etymology of pwn is contested largely depending on the generation or clique arguing the point. Some maintain it is derived from a pawn checkmate in the game chess. The early 20th century Russian chess  grandmaster, Alexander Alekhine, is said to have drunkenly stated during a game, ‘I will pawn to your knight,’ or it may have originated at MIT in the 1960’s from engineers working on Chess AI. It might have developed from the phrase PW OWN (password own) from the early days of phishing. Some argue it is a graphical variant of ‘own’ with a bleeding ‘o’ (the ‘p’ is an ‘o’ with blood dripping off its left side). Yet another suggestion is that ‘p’ comes after ‘o’ and is therefore ‘greater’. There was some speculation as to whether foreign language keyboards don’t have the ‘l’ or ‘o’ keys, which some thought might account for widespread use of KIK for LOL (laugh out loud) or KK for OK. However after some digging, it appears as if the origins are not keyboard related but rather from the online game World of Warcraft (WOW), where KIK appears for LOL when one encounters character speaking a different faction language.

However, like the popular ‘teh’ above, the origin is most likely a typo, in which the ‘p’ is pressed rather than the ‘o’ which is next to it on the QWERTY keyboard. If you are grinding your teeth at the lack of respect for the Correct Spelling, try this out on a youngster or friend, ‘Fancy a spot of backgammon? Prepare to be pwned’. The kudos you will get for being cool will outweigh the pain of this post.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGS) are hugely popular, with over 10 million people (and a few playbourers) subscribed to the World of Warcraft. In these MMORPGs, groups of 6-50 players need to collaborate on quests (e.g. killing a dragon) which involve teamwork and fast communication. One does not want to be typing long instructions when a fire breathing dragon is bearing down on you.

Are these collaborative online ventures driving abbreviated leetspeak? If so, it will be interesting to note the effect of the increasing use of VOIP (Voice over IP). Now that more gamers play with microphones and don’t communicate with the keyboard, will leetspeak enter a less dynamic phase and become more fixed? What I found interesting, and which I hope comes across, is the extent of the dialogue (and passion) about new word origins that goes on in game forums, chat rooms etc. Wouldn’t it be great to try harness this enthusiasm in the classrooms?

‘It is a damn poor mind indeed which can’t think of at least two ways to spell any word.’ Andrew Jackson

Disclaimer: Macmillan Education, while in all regards enthusiastic supporters of Correct Spelling and a leading embracer of measured language change, do not condone the spelling anarchy suggested in the above quote.

See part 1: Pwn Leet: a dynamic sublanguage and internet phenomenon

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Jonathan Cole


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