!n $34rch of w00t

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In November 2004, a “Jeopardy!” contestant who was way ahead of his fellow competitors wagered an odd amount on his Final Jeopardy response: $1337. Used to seeing a nice round number at this point, the undoubtedly perplexed Alex Trebek probably shrugged it off as a symptom of the Jeopardy College Tournament. (Those kooky kids!) But gamers or programmers watching knew immediately that the contestant was sending a message to his fellow techies.

In the specialized form of tech shorthand that replaces letters with numbers, 1337 means “leet,” which translates to “elite.” By the contestant wagering that amount, he was letting other gamers, programmers and IT professionals know he was one of them.

Fast forward to December 2007; Merriam-Webster selects its word of the year: w00t.

Yes, w00t – spelled with zeroes and looking like the result of a 3-year-old banging his tiny fists over a keyboard. It’s a term of boastful celebration and a way to exclaim happiness in online gaming, but the word has seeped into the verbal lexicon of the real world.

In fact, the first time I heard w00t, it was spoken aloud by another person and not something I read online.

At Indiana University, you buy student tickets to men’s basketball games in groups of 15 to 20, so often you find yourself watching the game in a group with your friends’ friends. So at a game, as the Hoosiers labored to win their 2005 Big Ten opener, one of my friends’ friends, Susie, kept exclaiming, “w00t, w00t!” with each jump shot made or stout defensive stand.

As Susie and I attended more games and became better friends, I noticed more and more her use of w00t as a positive exclamation. The Associated Press gave an example of such verbal use of w00t — Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” w00t-ing during a polo match — in an article on the Merriam-Webster announcement.

I asked Susie, now a product manager at Ingersoll Rand, about her history with w00t.

“I remember the scene in ‘Pretty Woman,’ but I thought it was an Arsenio Hall thing,” she said, referring to the chanting, fist-pumping section of his show’s studio audience, known as “the dog pound.”

“I always assumed she was doing a take off on that and not inventing her own thing,” said Susie, adding that she remembered hearing and saying the term when the Quad City DJ’s song “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” was popular. “Imagine an entire middle-school dance chanting, ‘w00t, w00t.’”

But in that song, the “w00t, w00t” in question is imitative of a train whistle. Clearly, I was on the wrong track. W00t seemed to have a double life: chanting, sports and TV shows on one hand and hardcore gaming on the other. Susie’s experience with the word had nothing to do with gaming or IT; her observations about Julia Roberts, Arsenio Hall and a Miami bass anthem raise the point that w00t has many debatable origins. Sensing my frustration, she referred me to one of her co-workers, Luke Zeszotarski.

A self-described gaming nerd, Zeszotrarski plays World of Warcraft 15 to 20 hours a week. He said w00ts are thrown around often, usually after a big kill or character power-up. He was befuddled by the spelling I gave, saying he’d never seen it typed leet-style with zeroes during game play, but insisted that usage of the term implies a certain inclination toward IT.

“People who use that type of language more than likely have professional aspirations in the field,” Zeszotarski said. “I always play with the same people, and most of them are in school, studying computer science or programming. You don’t see too many finance people running around in [World of] Warcraft.”

This may be changing, however. Who knows the backgrounds of the thousands of players playing World of Warcraft at any given time? Online gaming demographics are broadening at a rapid pace, and as a result, gaming slang bleeds into pop culture — similar to the general public’s adoption of hip-hop slang in the 1990s.

W00t may seem like a new slang word, but more than that it’s symbolic of the IT community leading the way. The industry has a history of creating culture-altering devices at first only embraced by the tech-savvy few, but soon followed by the mainstream. So the challenge: Find the next progressive, practical application that will change the world.

– Ben Warden, bwarden@certmag.com

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