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That's so fail

While adults are just starting to notice, usually with disapproval, "fail" used as a noun (as in "That's an epic fail."), my students are already racing ahead and converting it to an adjective.

We can tell that "fail" has become an adjective because it can be preceded by the quantifying adverb so, as in "I'm so fail." [Cf. I'm so happy (adj.), but *I'm so student (n.)].

I was familiar with fail as a noun, but hadn't run across this adjectival usage until today. It has some traction. Google gives 175,000 hits for {"so fail"}, of which many are undoubtedly coincidental collocations, but the first few pages of results gives a blog named Why So Fail SMeyer, apparently founded in July, 2008, a flikr video titled LOL im so fail, and a Yahoo question titled Why is Palin so fail?.

The earliest adjectival usage I've found so far (not really looking hard) is a flikr photo from April, 2007 [update: and this self-conscious use from around the same time]. That means it's been around in adjectival form for just about as long as the noun form (unless anyone can find significant antedatings for either one).

[Update: Also see Neil's discussion of fail as a mass noun, which I had originally missed.]

[Update 2: More evidence that 'fail' is being interpreted adjectivally: First, from the comment below, the word takes other degree modifiers, like very. The search phrase {"very fail"} gets 27,800 hits, so this isn't a one-off idiom with so. Second, fail can also take degree suffixes.

Failest has 16,400 g-hits and an entry in the Urban Dictionary. The definition reads: "the art of when someone does something so epically [sic] FAIL that they just fail at life."

The definition provides not not one but two adverbs modifying fail ("so epically"). And while the definition may technically sound as if it's describing a noun, the supplied example is unquestionably adjectival:

Carol: "Wow your attempt to push a chair onto the carpet was the failest thing i've ever seen"

I tried searching on "failer" but didn't find anything useful, since this is a common misspelling for "failure."]

Comments

Fail has only recently turned from a verb to a noun and an adjective and it bothers me. I don't know the origin but first heard it used when a roommate moved in from San Francisco to New York this spring. I mainly blame the epic fail blogs and such that have become so popular because if their viral videos. Even today at the apple store I exchanges something because they sold me the wrong product and the cashiere said "oh fail". I find it annoying and will try not to use it in my vocabulary. I'd rather stick with sucks.

I think the 'so' is at least as 'change-y' here. Search 'I'm so' and then a disparaging noun like 'loser' or 'idiot', and you get a lot of hits...

It might be as much about 'so' changing categories as as about 'fail' doing so. Search 'I'm so loser' or 'I'm so idiot' and you'll get a number of native-speaker hits.

I suppose some speakers may be reinterpreting "so" as a determiner, but not all. First, it appears to take other intensifiers. Googling on {"very fail"} gives me 20,700 hits. Second, at least some people feel the need to use a suffix rather than zero-derivation to convert the word, such as the following post, with the title Why Are The Upstart Leagues So Fail-Y. Looking at some of the other terms, it looks like a general pattern of "so + N", where the noun more or less freely combines with so, and undergoes zero derivation to become an adjective. There does seem to be a preference for nouns with negative connotations, although I get a few hits for "I'm so win". That means I may have to rethink my grammaticality judgment for "I'm so student" above, at least for some speakers.