I'm looking for a more formal expression or word that indicates failure to the extent that one would have to work very hard to achieve it. I'm aware of the idiom "epic fail" but I'm looking for something not as common, casual, or unkind. [Edit/question augmentation]: An example might be getting a negative score on a test for which a "zero" score was previously thought to be the worst outcome.

  • Do you mean a failure that turns to your advantage or teaches you something? Or do you mean people perceive it as an impressive effort?
    – vickyace
    May 11, 2016 at 12:58
  • @vickyace, not exactly - I'm referring more to a situation in which a highly unexpected negative outcome has been achieved. An example might be getting a negative score for a test on which a "zero" score was previously thought to be the worst outcome.
    – Gracie
    May 11, 2016 at 13:02
  • One doesn't work hard in order to fail, but some failures would indeed take a lot of work to duplicate. One that comes to mind is a Soviet Venus probe (Venera 14) that landed on Venus, popped its camera lens cap off, then tried to gauge Venusian soil compressibility. The only thing the sample arm tested was the lens cap, and it was a one-shot deal. The camera worked fine, you can look up the photos.
    – Phil Sweet
    May 11, 2016 at 18:54
  • There is, of course SNAFU, but it's not necessarily reserved for "impressive" cases.
    – Hot Licks
    May 12, 2016 at 0:14
  • 1
    A good single-word option is debacle. Among the definitions that Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary gives for it are "a violent disruption (as of an army) : ROUT," "a great disaster," and "a complete failure : FIASCO." Interestingly, the original meaning of debacle, according to MW, was "a tumultuous breakup of ice in a river."
    – Sven Yargs
    May 19, 2016 at 22:29

8 Answers 8


to crash and burn

  1. Lit. [for a plane or car] to crash and burst into flames. The small plane crashed and burned just after it took off.
  2. Fig. to fail spectacularly. Poor Chuck really crashed and burned when he made his presentation at the sales meeting.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs


The current neologism is omnishambles.

It describes a failure situation which has absolutely no redeeming features.

Originally used in a BBC political drama "The Thick Of It", it has been used in Parliament to describe Government policy.

The Oxford English Dictionary gave it the title "Word of the Year" in 2012.


If you want to be formal I suggest "comprehensive failure" (which I think suggests that the failure covers every aspect of the task at hand and thus meets the "hard to achieve" criterion).


I'll offer magnificent failure. It shows up occasionally. It appears in the Royal Society's Proceedings.

Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Volume 54

Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Volume 54

That would be George Green, btw. Virtually unknown outside of Cambridge during his lifetime, his mathematical discoveries ended up underpinning classical mechanics for a century.



connotation is momentary spectacular brilliance, like a meteor's tail, but then quickly "flaming out" into a dud.

  • This seems good but is lacking references. Could you cite the dictionary you've used? Nov 8, 2016 at 16:57
  • Maybe i didn't read the rules properly, or at all. I took it from my own vocabulary. .... It's Dec 4th 2016, haven't you heard? We live in a fact-free world.
    – UXdesigner
    Dec 5, 2016 at 2:12

I'd suggest "abysmal":

extremely bad; appalling

Cited from: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/abysmal


The word "awe-inspiring" would show that it is impressive, without being rude. One could say "Awe-inspiring {failure, downfall, etc.}"

  • 1
    Or, even, 'awesome'!
    – Dan
    May 11, 2016 at 13:02
  • @Dan That would absolutely work if the situation is established as formal. Otherwise, it could be percieved as the colloquial meaning of "awesome".
    – bakman329
    May 11, 2016 at 13:04
  • The op asks for a "epic fail type" noun but your word is an adjective that describes something that is such a "epic fail type" noun.
    – vickyace
    May 11, 2016 at 13:21
  • @vickyace The OP only requested a formal alternative to epic fail. Doesn't awe-inspiring X suffice?
    – bakman329
    May 11, 2016 at 13:26
  • @bakman329 Does "awe inspiring" mean, or even imply that something was a failure? It cannot. You, might as well use impressive, moving, impactful, reverend, amazing, etc.
    – vickyace
    May 11, 2016 at 13:38

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