Zimmer subs for Safire

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After his NPR interview and MSNBC honor for debunking the Cronkiter myth, Ben Zimmer is subbing for William Safire as this week's NYT's On Language columnist: "How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection", 8/7/2009.

Time was, fail was simply a verb that denoted being unsuccessful or falling short of expectations. It made occasional forays into nounhood, in fixed expressions like without fail and no-fail. That all started to change in certain online subcultures about six years ago. In July 2003, a contributor to Urbandictionary.com noted that fail could be used as an interjection “when one disapproves of something,” giving the example: “You actually bought that? FAIL.” This punchy stand-alone fail most likely originated as a shortened form of “You fail” or, more fully, “You fail it,” the taunting “game over” message in the late-’90s Japanese video game Blazing Star, notorious for its fractured English.

In a few years’ time, the use of fail as an interjection caught on to such an extent that particularly egregious objects of ridicule required an even stronger barb: major fail, überfail, massive fail or, most popular of all, epic fail. The intensifying adjectives hinted that fail was becoming a new kind of noun: not simply a synonym for failure but, rather, a derisive label to slap on a miscue that is eminently mockable in its stupidity or wrongheadedness. Online cynics deploy fail as a countable noun (“That’s such a fail!”) and also as a mass noun that treats failure as an abstract quality: the offending party is often said to be full of fail or made of fail.

Read the whole thing.


  1. Kenny V said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    nobody says "that's such a fail." Correct usages are as an interjection and in phrases such as "epic fail" and "made of fail," the leet correlate to "made of win"—this nominalized usage of "win" is is derived from the phrase "for the win" (ftw), used after somebody does something awesome.

    [(myl) Um, what?

    I take it that when you say "nobody says X" you mean "I think I wouldn't say X", and when you say "correct usages are Y" you mean "I have no idea how this expression is used, but I think I prefer Y". ]

  2. David Scrimshaw said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    I've been assuming that this new use of "fail" came from the engineering sense of the word where an object, structure or system fails, rather than the sense where a person fails to achieve an objective.

  3. Aelfric said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    I have long thought that this interjection use of "fail" came straight from the Geek world, given the old penchant of computers to ask, given a software problem, (A)bort, ( R)etry or (F)ail? It always (to this amateur geek and even more amateur linguist) seemed an odd redundancy to include both Abort and Fail, and that the fail option was somehow singularly humorous. To this day I am not quite sure of the difference between the two, perhaps someone could enlighten me. At any rate, this always made sense to me as the sort of ur-ancestor of failblog and the like.

  4. greg said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    "Abort, Retry, Fail" is itself an example of Fail.

    I don't recall the first time I encountered FAIL captioned pictures, but it seemed that it followed thematically in the vein of the ORLY? and NOWAI! owls, more than it resembled lolcats.

  5. Barrie England said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    Zimmer’s headline is ‘How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection’. He seems to ignore the fact that ‘fail’ is also a noun, and has been one since at least 1297 (OED).

    [(myl) Headlines are written by editors, in general, and (in my limited experience) not even OK'ed by the people who write the copy that runs beneath them.

    But in any case, the OED's entry for fail n. says "Obs. exc. in phrase without fail".]

  6. Lugubert said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    No day is complete without visiting languagelog, and icanhascheezburger.com & its partners, including failblog.

  7. Sarah said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    "That's such a fail" struck me as odd, too. I don't think I've never seen it used with a determiner before.

    The author mentions compounds like AmazonFail, CNNFail, etc. It made me think of a tendency among livejournal users to write about people by making a compound out of an adjective and their name. For example, when talking about Heroes people might refer to FuturePeter or Future!Peter to differentiate him from the present-tense Peter (I have no idea where the exclamation point came from.). I usually see it in the context of talking about television or movie characters, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's more widespread than that.

  8. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    > nobody says “that’s such a fail”

    Age gap speaking? Sounds like you guys never been to /b/.

  9. mOOt said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    @ Leonardo Boiko: Rules one and two, man!

    Am I the only one to think that the NYT article is a tad late? "Fail" has been an established meme for some time now. Even rocketboom has devoted an episode to it.

  10. Spectre-7 said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Zimmer’s headline is ‘How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection’. He seems to ignore the fact that ‘fail’ is also a noun, and has been one since at least 1297 (OED).

    Did you make it to the second paragraph of the article?

    Time was, fail was simply a verb that denoted being unsuccessful or falling short of expectations. It made occasional forays into nounhood, in fixed expressions like without fail and no-fail.

  11. Randy Hudson said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    @Sarah: I first saw the A!N construct in X-Files discussion groups and reviews dating back to at least the mid-90s. It was generally used in talking about some aspect of a character: Action!Scully, Psychic!Scully, Ditching!Mulder, etc.

  12. David Ivory said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 1:17 am

    And of course there is the Fail Blog.


    Where fails are available for all to see.

  13. chris said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 2:42 am

    It's a nice column, but the theory locating the origins of the usage in a late-90s video game does seem highly implausible. Haven't college students been talking for decades about "getting a fail" in a class? Or that they'd been "failed" by their professor? That sort of thing was certainly very familiar phrase when I was at college – twenty years ago. Surely a simple crossover from that widespread usage is a lot more plausible than a message in a short-lived video game?

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 3:01 am

    chris: Yes, the "pass/fail" grading system is one of the contexts where nominalized "fail" has survived, but it does not appear to be the proximate source for the new usage of fail. There's actually a fair bit of online evidence connecting the Blazing Star putdown of "You fail it" to the later use of fail as an interjection/noun. Christopher Beam covered this pretty well in his Slate piece on fail last year. Rather than covering that ground again, I chose to focus the column on more recent developments of the fail meme.

  15. Barrie England said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 3:08 am

    I accept the point about headlines, but although the OED records earlier uses of the noun ‘fail’ as obsolete, the Additions Series 1993 supports Chris's point in giving us ‘A failure to achieve the standard required to pass an examination; a classification denoting this.’ That is certainly current in British English. I agree that Zimmer makes a passing reference to nominal use, but he seems not to acknowledge this one.

  16. Barrie England said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 3:12 am

    I posted my last before seeing Benjamin’s. I should have added that the OED’s first citation for nominal ‘fail’ in an examination context is 1944.

  17. Nick Lamb said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 4:38 am

    Can we get some citations for "that's such a fail" ? Not because I doubt anyone has written it (only four short words after all) nor because its meaning escapes me, but because I'm trying to figure out how it fits into the larger pattern if at all. As with several other posters I'm not conscious of having ever seen this, whereas "epic fail" and "made of win" are phrases that I see or hear pretty often.

    Google suggests this phrase was very rare, and now gets decent results only because it is mentioned in two linked articles from known-good sources (the NYT and Language Log). Google can be wrong, but Language Log and its contributors are fallible too.

    [(myl) In my response to Kenny G, in the first comment on this post, I linked to a Google search for "that is such a fail", which claims 5,970,000 hits. (Why the written form with 's is so much less common, or at least so much less commonly found by Google, I don't know.) I also linked to "he|she|it is such a fail", which claims 6,150,000 hits. These numbers are seriously bogus, as Google counts generally are these days, since searching for the substring "such a fail" yields only 94,500 hits. Still, it's clear that there are plenty of examples out there. (And a Bing search for "such a fail" yields a claimed 49,000,000 hits — again probably a bogus number, but plenty of them are genuine, as you can see if you look.)

    Your Google Fu is weak, grasshopper.]

  18. Kenny V said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    Thanks to those who've corrected me. It seems I am not up on the very latest lingo. I deeply apologize for having assumed that I knew what I was talking about instead of actually doing the research first, a criminal sin, I know, on language log.

    It is an age gap, but not what you think. I'm 21. The usages I was describing were current a couple years ago (I think), but alas, it appears I am no longer 1337.

    However, the first usages I described are indeed still correct usages, and far from having no idea, I have a fairly good idea (though clearly not a perfection understanding, as you have graciously pointed out) of how these expressions are used.

    I have never heard "(that's) such a fail," and it sounds strange for a couple reasons: First, in the context in which that phrase might be used, I think everybody I know would just say the more concise "FAIL." Secondly, I consider "fail" to be more of an adjective than a noun. Another thing I might say instead of "(that's) such a fail" is "(that's) so fail," which gets 127,000 hits on Google–although, if you add in the "that's" it drops to 295 hits, I would say because "that's" is superfluous and people just don't say it.

    "Fail!" is an interjection, like "sweet!" or "awesome!" So when they say that something is "full of fail" or "made of win," it's like saying it's "made of awesome." My interpretation is that only after it is an adjective does it become a noun. Normally when we nominalize a verb we add the -age derivational morpheme (e.g. pwnage), but since "fail" has taken this backdoor route to nounhood, it doesn't need it, although I wouldn't be surprised if things came full circle and people started saying "failage" (perhaps "failocity" would be more euphonious).

  19. Troy S. said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 10:44 am

    This reminds me that, often, Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic

  20. Troy S. said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Oops, I posted the above comment on the wrong LL Post. Meant to put it under The Meaning of Timing. Maybe one of the mods will move it? C'est la vie.

  21. Emily said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    This seems to parallel the use of "stupid" as a noun in Internet communities, as in "The stupid, it burns!". In at least some Livejournal groups I've seen, "stupid" is also a count noun denoting an instance of stupidity; for example, a stupid statement about healthcare is "a healthcare stupid".

  22. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    For more on the nouning of stupid, see the comments on this LL post. And for further thoughts on the nouning of fail, win, stupid, awesome, etc., see this post by Neal Whitman on his Literal-Minded blog, as well as my latest Word Routes column.

  23. bulbul said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    Am I really the first to say it? Well, ok then:
    Vacation replacement WIN.

    Normally when we nominalize a verb we add the -age derivational morpheme (e.g. pwnage)
    Normally? -age is barely productive and stylistically suspect which is why I it was used by the geeks of yore to create pwnage – irony 'n' all that. There are plenty of derivational suffixes with higher frequency (-ty, -ation, -al, -ness) which could perhaps justify the use of the adverb "normally", but -age definitely doesn't belong there.

  24. bulbul said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 1:16 pm


    very true. I'd add languagehat and fmylife.com to the list.

  25. john riemann soong said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    "This punchy stand-alone fail most likely originated as a shortened form of “You fail” or, more fully, “You fail it,” the taunting “game over” message in the late-’90s Japanese video game Blazing Star, notorious for its fractured English."


    Haha, it's funny how unconsciously you absorb vocabulary and it doesn't strike you that the time you didn't know the word was not too long ago. I always knew "fail" was fairly recent, but I always thought "fail" was "natural" — somehow it was just something eccentric you just said if something warranted derision. It's kind of funny analysing "fail" as a noun, because, "it's just so natural!"

    I do admire the unconscious efficacy of memes to spread some pioneering or invasive concept and do it so rapidly it was as though it was always there. I just found out that the Singlish phrase "ai yo yo" only really entered the mainstream of Singlish after an 1989 show … I never watched the show (I was born in 1990) and it was just something everyone in school said — I always thought it had been a staple of Singlish and something grandmothers said!

    In fact I'd like to suggest a counterpart to the Recency Illusion — the "Old Tradition" illusion — where it seems kind of a stretch to imagine a time not too long ago when a certain phrase or grammatical concept didn't exist, because it doesn't sound "new" to you.

  26. ø said,

    August 9, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    Vacation replacement WIN.

    Well said!

  27. dd said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 2:03 am

    FAIL originated interjected word 'sap pai' zhouxingchi bark at opposite character in the hongkong movie, right? Cantonese word 'sap pai' interchangeable with 'fail' in the usage mentioned in article methinks.

  28. jaap said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    john: You're proposed counterpart to the Recency Illusion is the Antiquity Illusion.

  29. Bloix said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    "Fail" as a noun is completely congruent with "failure." Fail adds no meaning at all -it's simply hipper. There is a well-established pattern of verbs becoming nouns as slang or jargon where existing nouns already convey the full meaning: an "add" instead of an addition, a "break" instead of a break-down, a "give" instead of a concession, etc. I do suspect that the current usage comes from programming.

  30. rcapra said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    "Fail!" as an interjection has been around for much longer than 2003. When I was in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis in the early 1990s, "Fail!" was commonly used as an interjection among my group of uber-geek friends in the computer science department in much the same way that it is used now — to express dissatisfaction with the outcome of some event. For us, this could either be some type of computer failure, or a failure in some aspect of real life.

    While I am not sure of the origin, I believe the use may have inspired by the infamous Microsoft DOS operating system error message, "Abort, Retry, Fail?"

  31. Kate G said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    To be fair, Abort and Fail are different. If you're doing a multi step process, Abort means not to do the steps that follow. Fail means to try to keep going, but to mark this step as having failed. It's totally nerdview, but then it was written by and for nerds, who did not imagine their mothers ever having to use it.
    Interestingly just yesterday a 33 year old checked with me about the meaning of "epic fail". It seems to have spilled over into real world (out loud) speech with non insiders. The campfire conversation was adamant that the "epic" part is from extreme sports.

  32. Iritscen said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    I think that Kenny V was right (in the very first comment here), and that "made of win" begat "made of fail", which begat "fail" as a noun in general.

  33. Alex Chaffee said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    Great article! Small correction to the final sentence: the proper antonym of "fail" is not "unfail," it's "win," as in "FTW" (For The Win). This construction pops up often enough on FailBlog and elsewhere that I'm surprised you didn't make it part of your main article.

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