In my life, I have a sense that a lot of pwnage has happened but I never really knew what it meant or even how to say “me & the l337 pwned you n00bz” properly. Today I decided it was time to get my facts straight about the origins of the words “pwn”, “l337” and “n00b” once and for all.

The obvious place to start is the Urban Dictionary, an incredibly useful resource for pwning English. The Urban Dictionary has 93 definitions that say, more or less, that the word is a misspelling of the word “own”. There is debate about whether the p is silent — for instance, it could be pronounced the same as “own” or with a p in front of it like “pone”. Either way, pwn means you have defeated someone with a great display of skill or mastery. The term originates in gaming culture and there are some theories that put its origin in a typo by one of the Warcraft map designers:

What was originally supposed to be “player has been owned” was “player has been pwned”.

So what happens when you pwn something, like a fast-food meal or a small furry animal? Pwnage. The meaning of the term is illustrated by the following example:

A guy in a wheelchair falls off a building into an ocean and gets eaten by a shark.

In gamer-speak, there is a constant face-off between the l33t (leet, or elite) and the n00bz (noob, or newbies) that results, inevitably, in some sort of pwnage. For a serious breakdown of the power dynamics, read the entry on “pwn”. At the end it suggests ways to forget you got pwned:

  • Drink beer and wake up with a hangover next morning forgetting that you got pwned.
  • Get good at everything so you shall be pwned no longer.
  • Join the army.
  • Shoot yourself.
  • Shoot somebody else.
  • Shoot a dog.
  • Huff quality kittens.
  • Perform a self-lobotomy.
  • Pwnzorz the n00bs.
  • Ingest a can of Raid, jump off of a helicopter and into an ocean of nuclear waste, then forget that you got pwned.
  • Squeeze your balls.
  • Drink a galon of jin, die, get in a tomb and relaaaaax (sic)
  • Serious advice as this may seem, there are broader issues with pwnage that need some consideration. Firstly, there is an inherent connection between pwnage and Chuck Norris, casting the whole endeavour into disrepute or, at the least, doubt. Secondly, some will lament the downfall of the English language as a result of this type of speech emerging from games, cellphones and the media. Personally, I think those people need to be pwned. Lastly, pwning something and the culture of pwnage seem to be overtly masculine and riddled with testosterone and other male rugby-type things. To illustrate my point, South Africa pwned England on Friday night and then the pwnage continued on Sunday night in the cricket.

    However, emerging from the geek/gamer culture, people who use the term tend to use it electronically and mind their own business when a bar brawl breaks out. In this instance the geeks have beaten the jocks in terms of likelihood to survive. However, the emergence of the new jock-geek hybrid, the jeek, is worrying. What we don’t want is buff guys wearing glasses and yelling “Pwned!” while smashing bottles on the heads of others, while their friends upload pictures from their Linux phones. Or do we?


    Vincent Maher

    Vincent Maher

    Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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