Why is everyone saying "fail" all of a sudden?

Language and how we use it.
Oct. 15 2008 11:55 AM

Epic Win

Goodbye, schadenfreude; hello, fail.

A demonstrator holds a "fail" sign at a Senate hearing on the financial crisis. Click image to expand.
A demonstrator holds a "fail" sign at a Senate hearing on the financial crisis

When Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson testified before the Senate banking committee last month about Paulson's proposed bailout bill, a demonstrator in the audience held up an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper with one word scrawled on it in block letters: "FAIL." Earlier in September, Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson was dubbed by some bloggers an "epic fail."Grist magazine invoked the phrase when John McCain told a Maine TV reporter that Sarah Palin "knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States." And just last week on the Atlantic's Web site, Ta-Nehisi Coates found the theory that Bill Ayers ghost-wrote Barack Obama's memoir so "desperate" he called it an "Epic Fail."

What's with all the failing lately? Why fail instead of failure? Why FAIL instead of fail? And why, for that matter, does it have to be "epic"?

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It's nearly impossible to pinpoint the first reference, given how common the verb fail is, but online commenters suggest it started with a 1998 Neo Geo arcade game called Blazing Star. (References to the fail meme go as far back as 2003.) Of all the game's obvious draws—among them fast-paced action, disco music, and anime-style cut scenes—its staying power comes from its wonderfully terrible Japanese-to-English translations. If you beat a level, the screen flashes with the words: "You beat it! Your skill is great!" If you lose, you are mocked: "You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!"

Normally, this sort of game would vanish into the cultural ether. But in the lulz-obsessed echo chamber of online message boards—lulz being the questionable pleasure of hurting someone's feelings on the Web—"You fail it" became the shorthand way to gloat about any humiliation, major or minor. "It" could be anything, from getting a joke to executing a basic mental task. For example, if you told me, "Hey, I liked your article in Salon today," I could say, "You fail it." Convention dictates that I could also add, in parentheses, "(it being reading the titles of publications)." The phrase was soon shortened to fail—or, thanks to the caps-is-always-funnier school of Web writing, FAIL. People started pasting the word in block letters over photos of shameful screw-ups, and a meme was born.

The fail meme hit the big time this year with the May launch of Failblog, an assiduous chronicler of humiliation and a guide to the taxonomy of fail. The most basic fails—a truck getting sideswiped by an oncoming train, say, or a National Anthem singer falling down on the ice—are usually the most boring, as obvious as a clip from America's Funniest Home Videos. Another easy laugh is the translation fail, such as the unfortunately named "Universidad de Moron." This is the same genre of fail that spawned Engrish, an entire site devoted to poor English translations of Asian languages, not to mention the fail meme itself. A notch above those are unintentional-contradiction fails, like "seedless" sunflower seeds or a door with two signs on it: "Welcome" and "Keep Out." Architectural fails have the added misfortune of being semipermanent, such as the handicapped ramp that leads the disabled to a set of stairs or the second-story door that opens out onto nothing. Even more embarrassing are simple information fails, like the brochure that invites students to "Study Spanish in Mexico" with photos of the Egyptian pyramids. These fails often expose deep ignorance: One woman thinks her sprinkler makes a rainbow because of toxins in the water and air.

The highest form of fail—the epic fail—involves not just catastrophic failure but hubris as well. Not just coming in second in a bike race but doing so because you fell off your bike after prematurely raising your arms in victory. Totaling your pickup not because the brakes failed but because you were trying to ride on the windshield. Not just destroying your fish tank but doing it while trying to film yourself lifting weights.

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 w00tan 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.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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