Epic fail is defined as a spectacularly embarrassing or humorous mistake, humiliating situation, etc., that is subject to ridicule and given a greatly exaggerated importance.(Dictionary.com)

The expression is very popular but also quite recent. According to Google Books its earliest usages date back to around 2006 or so but it has dramatically increased since then.

What triggered its popularity? TV Shows, political commenters or what?

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    I don’t have the rigor to turn this into a proper answer but it was an internet catchphrase people used on forums like 4chan.
    – Casey
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 20:33
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    Not the origin, but boosted in popularity by "viral" internet sensations and the launch of Fail Blog in 2008.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 22:39
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    @Lambie Come on, now. That's just silly. What's the American version of 'cuppa'?
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 20:18
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    @JimmyJames Cup of tea
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 0:08
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    @Lambie The shift to maximal terseness is not an American thing, it’s an online lifestyle thing (I hesitate to use ‘internet’ here because it predates what most people mean when they use that term, going at least as far back as BBS services and Usenet), though texting is what really caused it to take off. Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 12:28

2 Answers 2


This is internet slang, pure and simple, and you can't find out about that through normal channels, such as OED, your parents, or any hidebound source that never "pwned" or got "pwned" on a video game.

According to the Know Your Meme website, it all started based on an old video game:

The earliest documented usage of the term “FAIL” can be traced to a Japanese 16-bit scrolling shooter game, "Blazing Star," which was released on February 26th, 1998.[5] The game was often mocked for its grammatically incorrect “game over” message that reads: “YOU FAIL IT! YOUR SKILL IS NOT ENOUGH- SEE YOU NEXT TIME- BYE BYE" (shown below). As seen with the All Your Base are Belong to Us meme, the combination of a retro video game narrative and Engrish translation proves itself to be a powerful source of lulz.

I recall hearing and seeing the term "Epic Fail" in the early part of the century, mainly in MMORPG "Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game" contexts. More from the same article:

While the exact origin of “FAIL,” as an interjection, remains unknown, the earliest appearance of “FAIL” on slang repository Urban Dictionary dates back to July 22nd, 2003.

And now we do have a standard source weighing in only a handful of years later:

On August 9th, 2009, the New York Times, in almost verbatim to Know Your Meme Episode, reported on the FAIL phenomenon. They wrote:

This punchy stand-alone fail most likely originated as a shortened form of “You fail” or, more fully, “You fail it,” the taunting “game over” message in the late-’90s Japanese video game Blazing Star, notorious for its fractured English.

The term "epic" attached to it is merely an intensifier, which tagged along later. If you look at the Urban Dictionary site, the first listing it gives for "Epic Fail" is from September 15, 2006. One a year later is more illustrative of the inanity:

epic fail The highest form of fail known to man. Reaching this level of fail means only one thing:

You must die, or the world will fail itself due to such an extreme level of failage.

Noob: OMG I gotz teh myspaces n mah yootoobs rool n sutf n u sux cuz u has no myscapes!
Me: Epic fail.

Apologies for the non-standard citations, but as I mentioned above, these are so far the only sources that keep track of the wild and wacky internet on anything like a current basis.

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    Fail as in "you failed" is well-attested since at least the 70s and doesn't require importation from another culture. It was the original "sad-trombone." The meme site often takes credit for things it ought not. It would not often be written down because it was a spoken interjection.
    – Yorik
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 17:24
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    disagree completely, and I am speaking from direct experience here. It gained more notice because it was written down in chat contexts which encourage a less formal word choice, but the exact use (sans epic) was quite common in conversation. Obviously derived from PASS/FAIL written on test papers.
    – Yorik
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 20:10
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    OK, and as noted I'm speaking from direct experience as well. We'll have to agree to disagree.
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 20:43
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    Epic fail precedes the internet by several decades. We were using it in ultimate frisbee in the mid 1970's.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 2:29
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    pwn is in the OED. Just sayin’. Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 4:23

epic is first recorded in writing by OED, and in this sense, in 1983

2b. colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.). Particularly impressive or remarkable; excellent, outstanding.

1983 When University of Florida linguistics professor David Pharies asked 350 sophomores for samples of college slang, here's what he found... ‘Killer’ is a compliment, along with ‘mint, awesome, prime, epic, golden, [etc.]’ USA Today 29 September d1/5

1985 The world's greatest surfers challenging the world's most epic waves. Surfing May 66

The OED continues

Fail n. = failure n. obsolete except in phrase "without fail".

It is first recorded in

1297 Þer wyþoute fayle, At Eccestre strong enou hii smyte an batayle. Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle (1724) 245

and last in

1678 There might be never any Fail of Generations. R. Cudworth, translation of Plutarch in True Intellectual System of Universe i. iii. 128

This meaning has now been resurrected in the modern "an epic fail" sense = an outstanding failure.

The earliest I can trace "Epic Fail" is "Big Book of Epic Fail" By Aaron Williams published in 2007 but obviously, the phrase, as a spoken term, existed before some time before this.

What triggered its popularity?

Schadenfreude and the internet.

  • NYT article "How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection" has a source tracing "fail" as an interjection probably to a poorly translated video game from the late 1990's.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 22:02
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    Noun use of "fail" also exists in the context of student assessment results. While "fail" may be regarded as a short form of "failing mark" or similar, in practice it is used as a noun in this context.
    – Peter
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 0:26
  • @Peter Can we really assign a part of speech to the labels "pass" and "fail" on an assignment or class grade? They're essentially just shorthand for "you passed" and "you failed".
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 15:27

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