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.]
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. 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 other articles by Ben Zimmer