In this weekend's New York Times Magazine, I'm the guest writer for the "On Language" column while William Safire is on vacation. I use my pinch-hitting spot to look at recent developments with the word fail, which in online usage has transformed from a verb to an interjection and a noun (and even sometimes an adjective). But truth be told, fail is only the most prominent example of a much wider phenomenon, with a whole series of expressive words getting similar treatment.

Eagle-eyed lexicographer Grant Barrett noted the rise of fail as a noun and interjection in his "Buzzwords of 2008" that appeared in the Times Week in Review section at the end of last year. As I describe in the "On Language" column, this usage of fail has enjoyed an even higher profile in 2009. The microblogging site Twitter has been an important medium for the popularization of fail. The cartoonish image that informs users of system outages has long been known as the "Fail Whale." (Frustrated Twitter users were left staring at the Fail Whale for quite a while yesterday thanks to a denial of service attack.)

Fail works best as a terse put-down, in keeping with the brevity of "tweets" on Twitter. This year, Twitter-driven criticism of CNN's coverage of the post-electoral turmoil in Iran was organized under the label "CNNFail." And "AmazonFail" has reared its head twice: once in April, when gay and lesbian book titles mysteriously disappeared from Amazon.com sales rankings, and then again last month, when George Orwell books mysteriously disappeared from Amazon's e-book reader, the Kindle. (See Dennis Baron's column for more on "Amazon Fail 2.0.")

But all of this fail talk might leave the impression that online discourse is nothing but carping criticism. There's a flip side to all of this: as Grant Barrett pointed out in his "Buzzwords" roundup, the opposite of fail in this sense is win. You might see it as a simple exultation, "For the win!" (That's "FTW" if you're in a hurry.) And just as fail has ended up as a mass noun, as in "full of fail" or "made of fail," an object of approbation might be lauded as "full of win" or "made of win." Or, even more effusively, you could call it "full of awesome" or "made of awesome."

Mass nouns aren't seen as discrete units like count nouns, but it's still possible to quantify them. And how are these unusual qualities like fail and win to be measured? As linguist Neal Whitman discussed on his Literal Minded blog, fail and win often come in metaphorical buckets, boxes, and bags: thus, "bucket of fail" or "bag of win." And this works for converted adjectives too, like awesome or stupid, as well as interjections like no and LOL (laugh out loud). Neal recalls a line in the 2007 movie Juno as "That's a big, fat bag of no!" I double-checked the script, and it's actually, "That's a big, fat sack of no!" Bag, sack, same idea: that abstract qualities can somehow be put into handy containers.

The common thread that I see in all of these mass-nounified words is that they can have the force of an interjection. The verbs fail and win ended up working as interjections in gaming subcultures. (Fail started out as the video game taunt, "You fail!" or "You fail it!") Adjectives like awesome and stupid also work as interjections, elliptically expressing the sentiment, "That is awesome/stupid!" It's fascinating that the exclamatory power of these words can then become harnessed into mass nouns, as if you could materialize these essential characteristics into a solid substance. Or are they liquid? Personally, I have a hard time envisioning a "bucket of fail," but I have a feeling we'll be seeing such evocative expressions with increasing frequency, like it or not.

[Update, Aug. 7, 1 p.m.: The New York Times Magazine article just went online — read it here.]


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 7th 2009, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Ben,

Do you see this nounification as a new, unprecedented trend in language?

Also, you mention the gaming culture helped move the needle... but there have been games since the dawn of time. Is it the massive-multiplayer-social games that require quick messages via Xbox controllers that contribute to this nounification? Or, similarly, do you think it's due to the imposed size limitations of twitter/text messages?

In other words, I'm wondering if technology has boosted nounification, or if it's more of a bit of insight into how the younger generations are viewing the world... as if through ironic eyes. Or both?

I'd be curious to hear/read about the social angle of "fail" in its contemporary usage, and how that applies to how people are viewing their world differently than prior generations.

Personally, I find it hysterical when used to describe a dumb mistake (as they do regularly on http://failblog.org). The title of these posts -- combined with the pictures of course -- just crack me up. But I don't quite know why. Would love to get the bottom of that.
Friday August 7th 2009, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great article, Ben. I wonder to what extent "fail" might earlier have taken its queue from "pass" (long well-established as both n and v), e.g., in college subjects that are graded on a pass/fail basis. "I got a pass" -- yeah. "I got a fail" --? I never heard it, but I left college a long time ago.
Friday August 7th 2009, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Taken its cue, that is. Homophones! They'll be the death of me!
Friday August 7th 2009, 3:25 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jon D.: In terms of the gaming angle, I do think the messaging of MMPORGs has helped to popularize FAIL and the other new nouns/interjections. As with " leetspeak" and other playful approaches to language, overlapping circles of gamers and hackers were the early pioneers, moving into murky online forums like 4chan and SomethingAwful before going mainstream. And the pithy irony of such usage turns out to be highly adaptive, especially useful in mediums where the conciseness and snarkiness of one's message is prized (such as lolcat-style image macros and Twitter updates).

Orin: Yes, "pass/fail" is one of the few contexts in which "fail" could be used as a noun before the latest onslaught. I think it also could have played a contributing role in what I call the "exclamatory power" of FAIL -- you can imagine it emblazoned on a report card or transcript, a forceful emblem of failure. It's not a big step from there to the FAILs of FAIL Blog.
Sunday August 9th 2009, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Peter M.
Difficult it is to envision a "bucket of fail," I must agree; but, a "pail of fail?!" -- now there's an image! One can grab the handle...it really seems to hold water.
Monday August 10th 2009, 5:26 PM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
This was a little slice of awesome, Ben.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 4:02 PM
Comment by: david O. (san francisco, CA)
Hey all and Ben, the people in the U.S. are missing a chance for a positive fun meme alteration. There is a liguistic elephant in the room that is being ignored with respect to the fail word.
I live in California where of the f-word, the one spelled f with uck, is not considered civil. I grew up in New Jersey and visit NYC often now when I travel. So the f-word is part of my vocabulary which I curb living here but I can blend in civilly when in NYC.
I need in my vocabulary the f-word at least privately. When I am frustrated trying to wrench a nut off a bolt and the wrench slips such that it bruises my hand and causes bleeding, and no-one is around, in a voice that eminates in the marrow of my bones, out of my mouth comes "mother f--ker." There are times I am so angry, very rarely and anger is not good in general, it fits to say "f--k you."

I have seen lame attempts to replace the f-word, foul being one. But the best replacement in my opinion is fail. It is important the word have a hard f
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 4:09 PM
Comment by: david O. (san francisco, CA)
to continue last post, the f needs to be hard. The word needs to be one syllable, it needs to be four letters.

Now how would fail become in meme the new replacement for the f-word. Examples: Fail You, Mother Failer (or Mother Failure), Fail Off, Fail-up, Failing (ex. Idiot), etc.

On a seperate issue in our day to day language, how about replacing the ubiquitus "like" with "same sort of."
Monday August 17th 2009, 5:29 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
The image of a "55-gallon drum of stupid" just popped into my fingers. Surely there's a political essay (or rant) just waiting for it.
Which can then be describes as a "fementing, steaming heap of rant".
Monday August 17th 2009, 9:05 PM
Comment by: david O. (san francisco, CA)
I just self published a book, the odd average atheist. It is hardly stupid in nature.

Meme origination is a fancinating thing to observe. I am simply trying to start an expression meme, substituting Fail for the obscene f-word. Why - because of the children. As the obscenity is acceptable in vulgar settings and believe it or not, and used daily in NYC and the area, children pick it up and it is uncivilized.

A recent study concluded people deal with pain better when free to express/release the ugly reality of pain in obscenities. If a 55 gallon drum didn't metaphorically "popped into anyone's fingers" but actually was full of oil and literally dropped onto anyone's fingers, they ought to have good release expressions. Such as: Mother Failer.
Friday August 21st 2009, 2:42 AM
Comment by: Heather (Calgary Canada)
WIN!

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