Why has fail become so popular? It may simply be that people are thrilled to finally have a way to express their schadenfreude out loud. Schadenfreude, after all, is what you feel when someone else executes a fail. But the fail meme also changes our experience of schadenfreude.What was once a quiet pleasure-taking is now a public—and competitive—sport.
It's no wonder, then, that the fail meme gained wider currency with the advent of the financial crisis. Some observers relished watching wealthier-than-God investment bankers get their comeuppance. It helped that the two events occurred at the same time—Google searches for fail surged in early 2008, around the same time the mortgage crisis started to pick up steam. And the ubiquity of phrases like "failed mortgages" and "bank failures" seemed to echo the popular meme, which may have helped usher the term out of 4chan boards and onto blogs. It's rare that an Internet fad finds such a suitable mainstream vehicle for its dissemination. It's as if LOLcats coincided with a global outbreak of some feline adorability virus. The financial crisis also fits neatly into the Internet's tendency toward overstatement. (Worst. Subprime mortgage crisis. Ever.) Only this time, it's not an exaggeration.
Most Internet memes have the lifespan of fruit flies. But there's evidence to suggest fail is here to stay. For one thing, it's easier to say than failure. (Need for brevity might explain why, in Webspeak, the opposite of fail is not success but win.) And there's a proud tradition in English of chopping off the endings of words for convenience. Between Old and Middle English, many nouns stopped being declined, says Anatoly Liberman, an etymologist at the University of Minnesota. Likewise, while Romance languages still conjugate their verbs, English keeps it relatively simple: I speak, you speak, we speak, etc. It's also common for verbs to become nouns, Liberman points out. You can lock a door, but it also has a lock. You can bike, but you can also own a bike. There was great fuss a century ago among readers of the British magazine Notes and Queries when it used the word meet to refer to a sporting event. It's not surprising that failure would eventually spawn fail.
It wouldn't be the first word to owe its ascendance to the Internet. The exclamation w00t—an interjection expressing joy—gained mainstream recognition when Merriam-Webster crowned it Word of the Year in 2007. The phrase pwned, a perversion of owned used by online gamers, made it into an episode of South Park—not quite the OED but still authoritative—and enjoys broad ironic usage. And of course, Google is no longer just a noun.
Unlike those words, though, fail has the luxury of pre-existing forms. Italready exists as a noun in the phrase "without fail." It's therefore likely to gain quicker entry into most people's lexicon than, say, a word that includes digits.
In other words, fail will win.