Tag Archives: fail


In standard usage, the antonym of win is lose, just as the antonym of fail is pass or succeed. But in the version of the English language that commonly sees win preceded by epic, its antonym is fail. This comes from a gamer’s mindset; every endeavour is a contest, but often against a machine, not another person. So if you succeed, it’s a win, but if you don’t, it’s not a loss – you haven’t necessarily been defeated by another person, and you haven’t necessarily lost any money or assets – let alone a lose, a word which has not to my knowledge been nouned yet; it’s a fail because it’s all about you and your worth as a person.

Of these three words, epic, fail, and win, you likely have the impression of seeing win the most often in normal contexts (as opposed to the hyperventilations of adolescents and those who are, at least momentarily, reliving their adolescence). On wordcount.org, fail is in 2,895th place, epic in 10,098th place, and win in 962nd place; in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are about twice as many instances of fail as of epic, and more than three times as many instances of win as of the other two combined.

Historically in books, however, if Google ngrams are to be believed, fail has shown up the most, though it has been declining and win increasing steadily to near-convergence. Epic has been fairly steady in third place. But if I search on Amazon.com for books with the keyword epic, I get 24,893 results, many of which focus on history or sports and/or are fiction (and I note with interest that one of the top results is co-authored by someone I know, Arlene Prunkl). If I search fail, I get a mere 4,142 results, tending towards sociology, economics, and epic fails (the top result is from failblog.org). If I search for win, I get 24,341 results, leaning strongly towards business and personal improvement.

And what words do they tend to show up with, respectively? The Corpus of Contemporary American English gives me proportions, poem, battle, story, struggle, tale, and journey to go with… guess? Epic, of course. Fail is most often seen after often, and also after without, and is frequently followed by to recognize, to understand, and to meet (standards, a challenge, obligations, et cetera). And win? Win over is very common, and going to win quite common too – of course won and winning are evaluated separately. What do you win? A war, a game, an election, a championship… you know, the usual stuff.

But win is the most versatile of the three. It is well established as both a noun and a verb (both for as long as there has been an English language). It comes from a word meaning “work, labour, strive, obtain”. It shows up in assorted terms and phrases, from winsome to you win some, you lose some. The particular perversity of English phonology and orthography have led to its having a stronger flavour of when than of wind (/wɪnd/, “moving atmosphere”), and no real taste anymore of wind (/waɪnd/, “increase torsion by turning”). There are a few names that smack of it, including Winston, Winnifred, Ashwin, and especially the family name Wynn – which, among other things, is the name of a casino hotel in Las Vegas.

But what really makes win special for an English language geek like me is that wynn is also the name of a letter that English used to have – a runic letter (ƿ) used in Old English to represent the first sound in win. It’s no great surprise that wynn went out of use when w became available; it looked too much like p and y and thorn (þ, another runic borrowing we used to represent a sound we now spell th; Icelandic still uses it). Ha – orthography fail. Well, the chances of winning have improved with the change: they used to look thin, but now the word declares, “double you in”! Win FTW! (FTW = “for the win”.)


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.