Wednesday January 30, 2008

This I Believe #29

"I have come," [Frodo] said.  "But I do not choose now to do what I came to do.  I will not do this deed.  The Ring is mine!"


Hey, speaking of fail the noun: where does it come from?  I've been seeing it around the Web recently (e.g. xkcd), and I have a vague sense that it's a reference to something, but I don't know to what.  Compare with C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER, which I've also been seeing a lot recently, and some googling shows is a reference to the video game "Killer Instinct 2".  Is fail just an intentionally-ungrammatical way, ala LOLCATS, of saying failure?  I'm aware of a parallel use of win that dates back at least to 1994: there used to be a Netrek client called COW, the "Client Of Win".  Is nominal fail that old?  Or is is perhaps connected with FTW, "for the win", which no less an authority than The Urban Dictionary suggests is a Hollywood Squares reference?

The OED has four senses of fail as a noun (besides the fail having to do with grassy turf).  One of them is the idiomatic use in without fail, another is a similar but obsolete use in for fail.  The third is simply a synonym for failure, which sounds promising, but the only citations are from 1647 and 1654.  The fourth is a recent addition (from 1993): fail meaning 'a failing grade'.  This might plausibly be the source, though I find the OED's two citations a little unconvincing, since they both include the word fail in quotation marks:

...classify the candidates in each subject separately as 'pass' or 'fail'
...F must soon be interpreted as standing for 'Fail'

In any case, it's hard to decide if any of these dictionary definitions are related to the current net-speak usage.  Anybody know?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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To me, it's evocative of the hackish nominal use of lose.

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Jan 30, 2008 7:03:39 AM

I always thought "for the win" came from Trivial Pursuit, when you went for that final question in the center after having all your wedges.

Posted by: Skrud at Jan 30, 2008 10:28:37 AM

I had the idea that it was more '[you/I] fail', with the subject gone (since pithier is better when it comes to internet insults), originally, and then 'fail' as a noun convergently emerged (it just happens to look the same as an already-existing noun, and isn't very different from 'failure', just shorter and currently funnier). I do think the lolcat phenomenon has brought playing with parts of speech more into vogue (or maybe they coincided).

Posted by: zusty at Jan 30, 2008 11:00:05 AM

I've observed, from the same gaming community that uses noun "fail", the construction "you fail at X" where X is the name of a game, the name of a tactic or action in a game, or simply "life". I suspect that the progression was just chat-mode contraction of "you fail at X" -> "you fail" -> "fail", bolstered by gamer chat flouting of grammatical convention.

Posted by: Russell Borogove at Jan 30, 2008 11:01:44 AM

Oh, yeah, I've seen that "you fail at X" construction around a lot. For your edification, here are the top few results (slightly massaged) from running on that phrase:

5140    you fail at life
1010    you fail at pvp
986     you fail at the internets
711     you fail at humor
652     you fail at sarcasm
115     you fail at reading comprehension
100     you fail at analogies
74      you fail at attempting a retort with a coherent argument
28      you fail at being a decent human being
28      you fail at pretty much everything

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 30, 2008 12:59:42 PM

I'm pretty sure Fail is one of the terms that popularized itself in the *chan (4chan/7chan/etc) cesspit. COMBO BREAKER certainly is. (From the bottom of the last article you can get a list of 4chan memes that no person would be sane enough to read from end to end. Also, keep in mind that wiki is -extremely- NSFW.)

Posted by: Zaratustra at Jan 30, 2008 5:47:31 PM