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The Success of Fail

A new twist on the ubiquitous fail meme makes it political. Unlike many language hounds, I try to value the life of all words. I really,...


A new twist on the ubiquitous fail meme makes it political.

Unlike many language hounds, I try to value the life of all words. I really, sincerely don't get bugged by new words, missing apostrophes, crazy spellings, or even words like impacted, which impact so many other citizens in such a negative way.But I have my limits. Even a word hippie like me sometimes gets his mellow harshed. For example, I've been hoping for fail-as in epic fail! and hotel sign fail!-to fail, ever since it became omnipresent on the web a few years ago. But the truth is, I'd be a pretty negligent language columnist if I didn't say something about the unbelievable success of this word. Plus, with the advent of CNNfail, MSNBCfail, and similar words, fail is actually making the world a better place, which is more than I do on most days.For a look at the history of fail, you can't do better than Christopher Beam's piece in Slate, which suggested that fail evolved from the expression "You fail it!", a translation of some unencouraging words from a Japanese video game. Another Slate article explored the commercialization of the meme, as personified by Fail Blog, where "Swingset Transportation Fail" and "Samurai Fail" and "Historical Accuracy Fail" are brought to you by the same entrepreneurs who turned lolcats and loldogs and lol-whatevers into profitable pageviews. So fail is at once a grass-roots, commercial, social-media, political, and humorous phenomenon. No wonder it can't be stopped.Also, it probably helps that fail has, in fact, been a noun all along, in the expression without fail, as well as obscurer senses that now have a contemporary-ish ring, like this 1622 Oxford English Dictionary quote: "The Prince suffers in the fails of his Ambassador." And in the academic world of dorms, rubrics, and lectures, the pass/fail class already did some nouning of fail in a setting that's as full of young, innovative language users. (For more on fail and how it annoys people, and why it really shouldn't, read linguist Arnold Zwicky's take).Twitter has plenty of examples of this general use of fail, the kind that has been annoying me since about 2003, as well:"So apparently mohair makes me sneeze AND gives me migraines. FAIL."June 21, 2009, sandandsilk"http://twitpic.com/81zum - See the little apostrophe someone put on here? Epic grammar police fail!"June 21, 2009, MicheleisMario"Oh crap. Waking up before 11 = fail."June 21, 2009, miss808"My camera died at the fire department. Mommy Photographer fail."June 21, 2009, FireMomBut the latest, and probably greatest, variation of fail is #CNNfail, a Twitter hashtag that seems to be everywhere recently, as tweeters protest the fair-to-middling-to-craptastic coverage of the protests in Iran. For non-tweeters, a hashtag is part of a Twitter post that allows for easy searching of topics. Typical hashtags are for far goofier things-such as #robotpickuplines and #inaperfectworld-but it's political activism that's motivating these tweeters, as seen in these characteristic examples of the trend last Sunday:"CNN you just incorrectly reported the Neda story! You need a Persian translator! #iranelection #cnnfail #cnn"June 21, 2009, Mariam Ispahani"@RWSparkle IMO, Nancy Grace is a humiliating example of #CNNfail at its worst."June 21, 2009, GayPatriot"#cnnfail #iranelection Yep, more than half of CNN's tweets about Iran have broken links. Typical CNN FAIL!"June 21, 2009, MaineChapmans"#iranelection #cnnfail @cnn @gawker CNN now covering Heidi and Spencer during riot police fanning out in Iran. CNN: FAIL."June 21, 2009, Sandy Lewis"I have to admit, CNNfail is a pretty brilliant and succinct way of saying CNN has screwed the pooch. It's inspired a website, plus equal-opportunity snarking in the form of #msnbcfail, #foxnewsfail, #nytimesfail and #wapofail."But even if fail is a natural language development, and it's helping to critique our deserving press, while bringing more joy than a robot butler, I have to admit I still hate it. I come from a more refined era, when sucks described the fails of the world. So next time you point out what a horrible job CNN or yours truly is doing, do me a favor and reach back to those simpler days, and write #CNNsucks (as some have already done) or #markpeterssucks, please.
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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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