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Pwned: analysis - The Growlery
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Pwned: analysis
Originally I hadn't intended to analyze the poll I did a couple of weeks ago on pwned, as it was just a throwaway poll I put together after rumor_esq inspired me to do so a few weeks ago. Pwned, and the various forms of the verb pwn, are recent coinages that have come out of gaming sociolects, tying it to my poll on melee; its most common pronunciation is based on an orthographic reinterpretation, like comptroller, and ultimately is not familiar to a whole lot of you, spawning all sorts of variability, as we saw some months ago with the nonce-word zough. So let's have a look at the results.

Just under half of you chose the pronunciation [pownd], while around one-sixth chose the bizarre (but etymologically correct) [ownd]. It is, to say the least, highly nonstandard for a word-initial P to be silent when followed by a vowel, but the P in pwned is no ordinary P. Rather, it originated as a facetious typographical pseudo-error for 'owned'. Originally a piece of hacker jargon, 'pwned' means 'managed, controlled, overcome' but diffused from there into Internet gaming jargon, more with the sense 'soundly defeated, dominated', and it is this latter sense that has predominated in recent usage. This is an unusual word origin, made even more unusual by the fact that English words do not normally begin with pw-, and must normally contain at least one of the six vowels AEIOUY. Unsurprisingly, this, coupled with the fact that it originated in an electronic, text-based medium, has caused enormous confusion as to the pronunciation of pwned, as can be seen here.

'Pwned' has become a sort of geek shibboleth. For those deeply involved in Internet gaming, to pronounce the word as 'powned' demonstrates that one is not truly a member of the in-group, that there is something just a little suspect about one's credentials. Or so I am told. It just so happens that I am only one degree of separation removed from the director of Pure Pwnage (pronounced 'ownage'), a hilarious Toronto-based online mockumentary series in which 'pown'-speakers are loudly mocked. Having said this, I have no doubt that in some segments of the online gaming community, [pownd] is preferred rather than derided, and in still other sub-sub-cultures, the users of any such term, regardless pronunciation, are worthy of scorn. This is just the way of things when you have a diverse group of overlapping but not identical subcommunities, each of which uses language to help construct identity. Really, in an online community, where visual markers of identity are hard to come by, this isn't particularly surprising, and I would expect to see more of it in the years to come.

As I have more than a smattering of Welsh-speakers, or people with an interest in Welsh, on my friends-list, the third most popular pronunciation in the poll (not counting 'no idea') was [pund]. In Welsh, W can and often does act as a vowel with the pronunciation [u] (while U is pronounced, confusingly enough, as [i] or [ɪ]). While the notion that W is a vowel in English is really quite silly (it only acts as a vowel in Welsh loanwords like cwm and crwth), if it were a vowel, those who know of this feature of Welsh might understandably pronounce pwned with the vowel sound [u]. However, it's not at all clear whether this is a more widespread pronunciation, or merely reflects the biases of my readership (leaning towards well-educated and polyglot).

For the record, while I chose 'owned' as my preferred pronunciation, being a realist, I recognize that should this word survive for any length of time, the standard pronuncation will almost certainly become 'powned'. In fact, should that happen, I would be willing to bet good money that the orthography will shift to 'powned' as well, thus concealing both the original orthography and the original pronunciation of the word. That this little piece of slang might become truly widespread and accepted in standard English doesn't bother me in the least. Whether this actually happens, of course, is another matter, but I wouldn't count out pwn just yet. It might just pwn us all.

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15 comments or Leave a comment
chickenfeet2003 From: chickenfeet2003 Date: July 7th, 2007 09:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wonder how most English speakers think Welsh words are pronounced (let alone the orthographically bizarre Scots Gaelic).
forthright From: forthright Date: July 7th, 2007 11:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Indeed! At least Welsh makes sense, once you know its orthographic rules, even if it is full of vowelless monstrosities.
From: entrenous Date: July 7th, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
The other part of that whole "powned" pronunciation, and the reason I and a good lot of my friends say it with the "p" is because we're making fun of it merely existing. As is the case with more "l334" or hacker speak.

Also with "pwned," somewhere along the way:
LOL became "lawl";
ROTFLOL became "rot-flawl"
BRB became "burb"
TEH became "tuh"
And anything with a XX in the middle of it (roXXors, haXXors), as in "My haXXors skillz roXXors" became pronounced like it looks.

I guess this is just the evolution of a language invented entirely in an electronic medium. If you don't hear it pronounced, you make up your own. Or would that be your pwn?
whatifoundthere From: whatifoundthere Date: July 7th, 2007 11:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your comment reminds me of this, which happens to be one of my recent obsessions so it's been on my mind. :)

(To add to your list: "pr0n" becomes prawn.)
From: entrenous Date: July 8th, 2007 12:00 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, "pr0n"! I knew there was one I was missing. And wow, that clip was hilarious! No idea what it was, but I definitely lawled.
forthright From: forthright Date: July 8th, 2007 12:12 am (UTC) (Link)
That one is especially neat because not only is it an example of metathesis (phonetically speaking) but also an interesting orthographic change (0 = o) plus it originates as a sort of censorship to avoid various filters, so it has a technological basis as well.
wererogue From: wererogue Date: July 7th, 2007 11:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've also seen a surge of "lulz" for lol recently - I believe based on the lolcat/cat macros.
joane From: joane Date: July 8th, 2007 08:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've seen lulz used as the noun version, with lol remaining as the verb form - if I loled at you, then I had lulz.

Ah, teh intarwebs.
forthright From: forthright Date: July 8th, 2007 12:02 am (UTC) (Link)
I do think there is something of real interest going on here more generally, in terms of linguistic change being stimulated by a new medium. It will be very interesting to see where it all leads.
foms From: foms Date: July 8th, 2007 02:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Thence to pwnXXors (or pwnXX0rs, pwnXX0rz, pwnXX0rz, pwnzorz, and the rest). Such choice choice. [g]
owlfish From: owlfish Date: July 7th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Even if etymologically unrelated, because I've never needed it in speech, even knowing where it comes from, I've been partial to "pawned" for pronunciation for its associations with both pawn shops (one's own items now under someone else's control) and chess (enforced weakness of character).
forthright From: forthright Date: July 8th, 2007 12:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Neat! I hadn't thought of that semantic connection but now that you mention it it makes a lot of sense.
wererogue From: wererogue Date: July 7th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Reading this, I noticed that while I play around with "pwned" (I've used at least half of the pronunciations in that wikipedia entry), I always pronounce "pwn" as "own".
otheronetruegod From: otheronetruegod Date: July 8th, 2007 03:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Pronouncing it "powned" is funny. Pronouncing it "owned" completely fails to address what makes the spelling funny in the first place.

I love these analysis postings. :-)
asyncritusx From: asyncritusx Date: February 19th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amongst my associates back in the 90s, the P actually did stand for something and wasn't just added at random. Back in the day, one of the hot corporate buzzwords was Power. You had Power Ties, Power Lunches, and Power Naps etc. On a separate buzzword evloution line, tribes and quake folk developed the terms Own (vastly out match an individual), and Camp (mass denial of a certain area, often a spawn point) etc.

Amongst my associates, the Power buzzword collided with the standard fps jargon such that one would not just Camp, but Power Camp an area, and likewise Power Own people. From this p-owned and p-camped was derived, and was moved on to pwnd by later players. New folks who weren't "there" didn't know what the P stood for, and you get definitions like "Pure Ownage", which of course, doesn't make sense if stated pwnd="Pure Owned", but hey, its a funny video.

It's not that my associates neccessarily invented the usage, but these were the circumstances surrounding some of the earliest usage of the term I am familiar with. So for what it's worth, this is one version of the etymology of pwnd amongst one set of the gamer community.
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