This is a common word – quite common lately, indeed. We are all used to it from school, the bugbear of all students: whether a course is pass/fail or graded, there is always a chance to fail, and if you are flailing and grasping at straws you will be standing a strong chance of slipping into that pail. Fail means losing (amusingly, the Irish word fáil means “getting”).
In the adult world, fail often appears with an infinitive following: I fail to see your point; If you fail to appear, you will face a fine. We have fewer tests, and fail without an infinitive complement is something one does on a test, mainly (although banks, structures, and engines can do it too). If you take part in a track meet, say, you might win or place, and you might lose, but no one would say you failed. Likewise in a hockey game you could chalk up a win, but the opposite is a loss. If you go for a job interview, or an audition, you might say you didn’t get it, but in spite of their being tests of a sort, you probably won’t talk about failing.
But in a variety of non-test circumstances, you may now, in colloquial parlance, be said to fail if you acquit yourself poorly. Or, more to the point, the act of making an idiot of yourself – of convincingly demonstrating your fallibility – is called not failing or failure but a fail. (If you do so spectacularly, it is an epic fail. Of course, adolescents, wanting everything to be the coolest and most important and awesomest and most memorable ever, and generally believing their own press releases, are likely to label an amazing variety of minor mishaps epic fails. But, then, they will also sometimes call things fails just because they don’t understand them. Adolescents will be adolescents…)
Oh, but now the crusty curmudgeons emerge without fail. “The noun,” they point out with asperity, “is failure.” And indeed they can call a dictionary to back them up – after all, according to Oxford it’s been some three centuries since fail was regularly used to mean “failure”, though it was common enough for several centuries and was used readily by Chaucer and Shakespeare. Oh, there is a modern exception: the phrase without fail. But that’s fixed enough in usage it might as well be a single word. You can feel sure that fail as a free-associating noun has not over the past few centuries persisted in standard usage; if it had, it would not have the popularity it now has.
Of course! The entire point of its popularity is that it is a new usage: a quick trimming, perhaps a quotational noun (similar to “That’s a go” or “I got the OK”: a noun formed in reference to an instance of effective utterance of the word – “Go!” or “OK” or, on a report card, “Fail”). It is fun precisely because it is like cheating; it seems ungrammatical yet comprehensible and so has a sort of novelty. And it is a shibboleth, a password into that (rather large) in-group of people who share in the cultural meme, who have this in-joke going.
After all, as I point out in “An appreciation of English: A language in motion,” there are two main reasons people change their language, or participate in language changes:
One: To make their lives easier.
Two: To make themselves feel better.
Fail succeeds on both points. It takes less effort to say – it’s a nice, tidy conversion, just like a meet (as in track meet), a win, a test, and the verbs face, chalk, interview, and audition, among many, many others. And, as it has a sense of novelty (fun) and participates in a cultural in-group reference (arising most likely in computer game circles originally, but now carrying images epitomized by the treasure trove on failblog.org), it certainly makes the users feel better. The fact that it (without fail!) irritates the old and inflexible puts the sprinkles on top of it all.
And how does it feel, this fail, which has fallen into our palaver from Latin via French? Aside from fun, that is. Well, one thing to note is that in the faddish use, it is very often rendered in all caps, FAIL, like a rubber stamp or old-style computer typing. Aside from that, it has a feel of flail and fall (common occurrences in fails), and of fill (less so), and you may get effects from ail and all the other rhymes (ale, sail, pail, hail, and so on). It starts with that softest of fricatives, /f/, and ends with a licking liquid /l/; there seems to be nothing about its sound to lead one inevitably to a sense of catastrophe and humiliation. And yet it does not fail to do so.