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Word trends – FAIL

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Since its inception, the internet has been a rich source of new words (such as blogroll, chatterbot, cyberslacker, phishing, and tweetup) and meanings (such as browse, mouse, spider, cookie, and thread).

Fail is a perfect example of an Internet-created word craze. It’s used in our everyday speech as a verb, and it has been used as a noun in specific contexts for some time, mainly in the phrase ‘without fail’, or specifically to describe an instance of failing a test, as in this 1944 example from the OED:

The marks[ …] enabled the examiners to classify the candidates in each subject separately as ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.
The phrase ‘without fail’ has been in use from as early as the Middle Ages, and the OED also includes some old examples of ‘fail’ being used on its own to mean ‘a failure’:

1656 T. Burton Diary (1828) I. 176 There is no fail of justice yet.

The online generation’s use of fail as a noun, to mean ‘a mistake, failure, or instance of poor performance’ is unlikely to be connected to these earlier uses, though. Probably derived from a computer game which declared ‘You fail it’ when a player lost, fail grew in popularity as an Internet meme, with people attaching the word to pictures showing acts of stupidity. In wider use it is often paired with intensifying adjectives such as massive, total, and epic, as in these examples:

My first attempt at ice racing turned out to be an absolutely epic fail.

I was supposed to study but ended up watching Friends reruns for five hours – massive fail.


‘Fail’ can also be used as a general exclamation of disgust, as the ultimate dismissal at the end of a critical statement:

OMG, he’s such a total loser. FAIL

I was halfway to the pub when I realized I’d left my wallet at home. FAIL

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.