There’s a lot of hostility out there towards certain words, especially when the complainer sees them as recent innovations, and especially when the words fit certain patterns. For instance, Mark Liberman reported (in “Centuries of disgust and horror”, here) on hostility towards some uses of the suffix -ize, as in incentivize. And direct, or zero, conversion of words to verbs or nouns (which I’ll call verbing and nouning for short) gets a lot of bad press: verbing weirds language (and so does nouning).
The usual objection to zero conversions is that they’re unnecessary: the language already has phrasal equivalents to the innovations, or has existing single-word equivalents. And the usual response to such objections is that the innovations are often shorter than the alternatives (brevity is good) and they almost always express subtleties not conveyed by the alternatives.
But sometimes people object to zero conversions simply on the grounds that they change categories.
Case in point: the nouning of the verb fail.
I’m reporting here on some recent ADS-L discussion, with links to other sites.
There are both mass uses and count uses of fail. Mass use in things like “a bucket of fail” (reported on by Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett in “The Buzzwords of 2008″, NYT Week in Review, 12/21/08), count use in things like “Top 10 translation fails of 2008″ (quoted in a Language Log posting by Mark Liberman), ”an epic fail” (among the examples in an Eric Beam Slate column), and “Nine worst social media fails of 2009… thus far” (from the tech site ZDNET).
Why would anyone want the noun fail when the language already has the noun failure, with both mass and count uses? Well, as an innovation, it’s noticeable, communicating creativity or playfulness, and possibly trendiness as well. And it’s shorter than failure. Finally, the way I read examples of the nouning fail, there’s a suggestion of mistake or misstep that’s not present in failure.
Then Ben Zimmer posted more examples, with a link to a blog posting on “Top 7 Conservative New Media FAILS So Far this Year” (“top N X fails” seems to be something of a web figure these days — a snowclone in the making, maybe), where commenters discuss the verbing of bias and the nouning of fail. One contributor (“ARG in Chicago”, hereafter ARG) flatly asserts:
Sorry, but “fail” is not a noun. Using it as a noun doesn’t make it a noun.
I hope that ARG understands that there is still a verb fail, no matter how much nouning goes on. So the claim is that fail cannot be — that is, must not be — a noun as well as a verb. (Compare my discussion of the claim that impact cannot be — that is, must not be — a verb as well as a noun.) But, of course, for some people it is a noun as well as a verb. Maybe the noun fail is non-standard, maybe it’s not in widespread use, but it’s out there.
ARG is welcome to dislike, even to ridicule, the nouning of fail, and of course nothing obliges ARG to use it, but ARG has no standing to tell other people what to do.
Commenter Lucy Stone did reply to ARG:
Language change is dictated by users, not dictionaries. If enough people use “fail” as a noun, it becomes a noun and the dictionary falls in line.
(Compare the discussion here of the nouning ask ’request’, which eventually made it into the OED and NOAD2. And the discussion here of various nounings of swear, though the currently moderately common sense ‘swear word’ hasn’t made it to the OED … yet.)
And there are tons of earlier nounings in English, going back to the earliest days of the language. Some of them vanished, others became unremarkable vocabulary items. But it would be silly to insist that on some specific date the doors slammed shut on new ones, so that people are no longer allowed to noun other parts of speech.