The social media are in the midst of a brief kerfuffle over “selfie”, Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word of the Year”, hashtag #WOTY. And “hashtag”, of course, was last year’s #WOTY, as chosen by the competing #WOTY-maker, the American Dialect Society. ADS chose “tweet” in 2009, and “app” in 2010, both of which seem to have more staying power as of 2013 than their 2006 selection, “plutoed” (meaning to demote in status).
Oxford Dictionaries has been less “social media” and more political in its selection of #WOTYs (these seem to be the only two types of word that make it), but they learned their PR lesson this year, and “selfie” it is.
But tonight I heard something on the NPR that made me wonder about a word that seems to have reached out of the internet and firmly taken hold of the language, without the support* of the #WOTY gatekeepers:
There was some criticism of the government, very public … from Global Times … It criticized the government for essentially a soft power fail.
I’ll take it for granted that All Things Considered is a reliable source for acceptable radio journalism style [although the reported also refers to "tweaking the Philippines"], and for some, this usage will we utterly unremarkable. But I wager many others will feel that “fail” can only be a verb in this sense, and that the speaker intended “a soft power failure.”
But as is clear from sites such as failblog.org, a “fail” in modern parlance is a synonym for a mistake, a goof, a gaffe, or a blunder. A catastrophic such blunder, or one that no sentient person, however stupid, would ever be expected to commit, is an “epic fail.” Fails, if caught on CCD, are likely to be immortalized on the internet, with the word “FAIL” stamped over the image. The opposite of a “fail” in this sense is “win”, when one manages to achieve something excellent, against expectations.
As sometimes happen, this ultra-modern usage actually parallels an obsolete nouning of “fail, v.”, last recorded in the OED in the mid 17thC :
3. =failure 2. Obs.
1647 Sanderson Serm. II. 207 Overmuch sorrow‥upon the fail of any earthly helps or hopes.
1654 Gataker Disc. Apol. 47 Chalkie Pillars‥threatning a fail, if not a fall.
As Oxford Dictionaries claims in its blog, perhaps feeling defensive about “selfie”, “The truth is that only 1% of all new words are totally new, and of those an even smaller percentage are conjured up out of thin air.” Right. Always gomagloffle the wuggledibloons before hrimping the awps. That was harder than it looks.
*In fact ADS, in an effort to increase their PR, introduced sub-awards in “categories”, in 2008. “Fail, n.” won “most useful” in the next year, when “tweet” took top honours.