Does anyone know when and how fail became a noun? I'd love to see one of those charts that shows the date of origin and subsequent growth of this usage.

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    I believe you mean used as an interjection, rather than as a noun. – Borror0 Jan 23 '11 at 9:37
  • You also may mean its recent transmogrification into an adjective, which comes from the online gaming community. (For example, "John is fail at healing" or "We had a fail tank so we wiped like a gazillion times.") – Robusto Jan 23 '11 at 10:57
  • "We had a fail tank so we wiped like a gazillion times." Construe, @Robusto, construe! – Brian Hooper Jan 23 '11 at 12:43
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    @Borror0: it really is being used as a noun, e.g. "that was an epic fail". Take a look at YouTube and search for fail. – ukayer Jan 23 '11 at 17:30
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    @Borror0: so is "Fail!" an interjection? Isn't "that was an epic fail" an example of fail as a noun? I think the best answer (or at least the answer to the question I thought I was asking is in the Slate article posted by @WAF below. – ukayer Jan 23 '11 at 23:35

"Fail" has existed as a noun and has been part of our lexicon for a long time, such as in the phrase "without fail." However, it gained a new meaning in the recent years with the fail Internet meme, where it started as an interjection first, capable of standing on alone in a sentence.

In fact, the first entry for "fail" to arrive on Urban Dictionary described fail as "an interjection used when one disapproves of something, or a verb" and one of the two examples cited was:

You actually bought that? FAIL.

If the "FAIL" above was a noun, that sentence would not be syntactically correct. Nouns cannot be used in that manner. It would be like saying:

You positioned your lips to form an upward curve? SMILE.

We understand what is meant but it's not syntactically correct. No one with a good command of English would ever say such a sentence. A correct way to articulate the thought while keeping "smile" as a noun would be to say:

You positioned your lips to form an upward curve? That's a smile.

Therefore, the fail in the Urban Dictionary example is an interjection.

It's only afterward, probably through misinterpretation of the meme, that it came to be used as a noun. When you look at an image with only "FAIL" written on it, it's impossible to tell whether fail is being used as a noun or an interjection:

alt text

From that point on, the meme evolved - as memes often do - and started to be used as a noun, as an adjective, and as a noun modified by as an adjective.

As for the origin of the meme itself, which I assume is your original question, the origin most often given (by Know Your Meme, Slate, and the New York Times) is that it comes from a poor Japanese-to-English translation of the game Blazing Star.

Ben Zimmer of the New York Time says:

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.

For reference, here's Blazing Star's game over message:

alt text


Online Etymology Dictionary says:


The noun (e.g. without fail) is from late 13c., from O.Fr. faile "deficiency," from falir. The Anglo-French form of the verb, failer, came to be used as a noun, hence failure.

  • thanks for the reference and good to know the noun 'fail' has a long heritage, but I've gone from never hearing it a few years ago to hearing it several times a week, any idea why? – ukayer Jan 23 '11 at 17:33
  • @ukayer: You're welcome. I have no idea why its usage curve went steep as a noun; but I personally use failure. – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Jan 23 '11 at 18:55
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    @ukayer: It's most often used asn an interjection these days, having been popularised by internet slang. – Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 21:13
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    +1 for adding a quote that actually had the answer to the "when" part of the OP's question unlike the accepted answer's vague "for a long time". – Patrick Aug 15 '14 at 8:11

adding to Mr Mehper's answer, people use it in the stock and security market too. to mean:

  1. Failure to deliver securities to a purchaser within a specified time.
  2. Failure to receive the proceeds of a transaction, as in the sale of stock or securities, by a specified date.

The recent uprise in incidences of non-verb fail is due to its being an internet meme, possibly from a Japanese video game with poor translation to English. Know your meme.

  • The Google Trends graph mixes the verb and the interjection. The graph for "Epic fail" shows the sort of explosive growth I was expecting. – ukayer Jan 23 '11 at 23:32
  • "Epic fail" for the win. – Mr Lister Oct 19 '12 at 16:57

Although "fail" has been used sparingly in the past as a noun (e.g. "without fail"), there is evidence that the word is creeping toward ordinary usage as a noun to replace the word "failure." I just read the following headline in Bloomberg Businessweek (6/6/11-6/12/11 issue): "How Stephen Elop is trying to lead Nokia past its epic fail." My first reaction was that perhaps the word is only used to draw attention in headlines, but that it would not breach the body of the article. Well, the word did appear once inside the piece.

"Fail" (as an ordinary noun) is coming into our campsite, ladies & gents. Hey, compared to "refudiate," it's a gem!


Some hypotheses are listed and briefly analyzed in this Slate article.

  • Fail Blog was created in response to the meme. Pet Holdings Incorporated capitalize on memes; they don't start them. The slate article, however, pretty much summarizes the most common theory as to why fail came to be used as an interjection. – Borror0 Jan 23 '11 at 19:28
  • @Borror0 Duly edited. – WAF Jan 23 '11 at 21:08
  • thanks for the Slate reference. This is more like what I was looking for. – ukayer Jan 23 '11 at 23:30

Fail has been used as a noun with a quite different meaning by Rev John Davidson,DD in his book 'Old Aberdeenshire Ministers and their people' 1895. He describes a parish school built in a day with dry-stone walls topped with FAIL or divot and a roof of open rafters covered by thatch.

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