No nouning!

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.

28 Responses to “No nouning!”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Also, No Adjectiving, as in a fun time, the funnest/most fun thing, etc. See
    The Academy on the subject.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To John Lawler: adjing, for short. The case of fun has a pretty fair literature on it, and was the topic of an exchange on ADS-L back in 2006. Adj uses of fun get a truly enormous amount of hostility in the advice literature.

    Then there’s Geoff Pullum on funly, here.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    My goodness, how do they handle words like “fast”?

  4. Tukaram Says:

    Fail would certainly not be the first ‘F’ word that works as multiple parts of speech.

  5. An invite « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Just another weblog « No nouning! […]

  6. MikeyC Says:

    It is here, isn’t it?

    without fail

    How long has that expression been around?

  7. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To MikeyC: according to the OED, without fail has been around since at least 1297. The OED treats this expression as the only surviving use of the old noun fail ‘failure’. But now people have nouned the verb afresh.

  8. MikeyC Says:

    Many thanks, Arnold.

  9. AutumnTwilight Says:

    I’ve always felt the noun of “fail” fit best when noting an instant or moment of failure, allowing you to just point out a specific part. The word “failure” seems more encompassing and in a sense implies that everything that the word “failure” was referring to was a mistake rather then a part of it. But that’s just me.

  10. Buckets, Boxes, and Bags « Literal-Minded Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky wrote about the topic on his blog a little later, noting that in addition to the usage of fail as a mass noun, there were also some uses as a count noun (as in an epic fail). It’s the conversion of fail (and also win) to a mass noun that I’m interested in. […]

  11. Link love: language (5) « Sentence first Says:

    […] Link love: language (5) Arnold Zwicky on the re-nouning of fail. […]

  12. goofy Says:

    The Twitter feed “thatwhichmatter” calls this here post of Zwicky’s “a quiet and researched plea against the nouning of words”. Did they really read it?

  13. Jemaleddin Says:

    The key difference to me is that “failure” has a soft sound to it. The -ure somehow cushions the sting of the word, but “fail” sounds strong and direct.

    “Fail” is win.

  14. Walter Says:

    In most cases, I agree with you. However, in the case of “failure” and “fail,” the word “fail” has taken on a subtly different meaning throughout its use. “Failure” is still used in the traditional sense. A person can be a failure, as can a project. The word “fail” used as a noun denotes a more specific moment of failure, an epic failure, or, more often, an idea or project that was doomed to fail from the beginning and one that is almost always captured as a picture.

    So, don’t think of fail as a replacement for “failure.” Think of it as a replacement for “a specific moment of epic failure.”

  15. ron Says:

    everyone knows about this site – right?

  16. Joe boomah Says:

    Love the Calvin and Hobbes reference!

  17. Jared Says:

    I agree with Walter. However much the nouning of the word fail is derided, it is, in fact, a very valid construct.

    In respect to the word’s popularization, you can point your fingers squarely at 4chan, and to a larger extent, hacker culture, which has always featured wordplay and obfuscation.

    To give another example, many of my classmates (and a large number of the students that attend my school, for that matter), have taken to using a verbed form of the proper noun Facebook. “I took a whole bunch of pictures last night and facebooked them” is an example of such a construct, which is simply much easier (in my mind, anyways), than saying “I took a whole bunch of pictures and uploaded/posted them on Facebook”.

    In the end, the driving force of language change will nearly always be a way of saying more with less, and it is quite often the younger generation (which hasn’t quite “learned the rules yet”) that is the driver of such change. Whether it’s beneficial or not is anyone’s guess. I, for one, could use the extra breath.

  18. Arnold Zwicky Says:

    goofy: “The Twitter feed “thatwhichmatter” calls this here post of Zwicky’s “a quiet and researched plea against the nouning of words”. Did they really read it?”
    They probably did, but what they saw was me citing some anti-nouning opinions. Yes, I went on to confront and refute these ideas, but plenty of people seem to believe that quoting something is espousing it. I don’t really know how to deal with such beliefs.

  19. A grow « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] of people are down on nounings (see here) — why do we need these new words? grumble, grumble — but there are good reasons why […]

  20. Short shot #11: haul-fail « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] video), and mass uses as well, as in a bucket of fail. See, among other recent items, my posting here, Neal Whitman’s posting here, and Ben Zimmer’s column in the NYT Magazine and his Word […]

  21. Permitted loads « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] trucks allowed) from a different location, posted 2/20/08 on a blog as an instance of a big fail. On 4/2/09 commenter Mike Fletcher explained: The “permitted trucks” refers to trucks […]

  22. Postings on nounings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 6/20/09: No nouning! (link) count […]

  23. Terry Says:

    I was always told that in English “one can verb any word.”

  24. terence Says:

    I think the reaction is one against overuse. And again, it’s up to interpretation what defines ‘overuse.’

    We also have to consider the fact that there are quite a few new words that see rising and falling popularity over the years, few of which have the kind of permanence necessary to get them into a dictionary. Such a large body of innovations that will likely cease to have meaning in just a few years (in some cases months) does tend to drive people nuts.

    This is not an argument against nouning so much as an apologetic for those who dislike it.

  25. Annals of nouning (and peeving) « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Log (“My ask”, here) and fail in 2009 on this blog (with links to other postings), here; in both cases I reported plentiful hostility towards the usages. Now a couple recent big spend […]

  26. Communications Syllabus » Verbing, Nouning, and Other Sports Says:

    […] needs to be a noun, when we’ve already got failure. There is a subtle difference, however. As one Internet commenter put it, “The word fail used as a noun denotes a more specific moment of failure, an epic failure, […]

  27. Noun-Spotting | Word Nerdery Says:

    […] No Nouning […]

  28. verbing | inge note | copyeditor + proofreader Says:

    […] that is not a noun, for example ‘ask’ in ‘a big ask’) and adjectiving aka adjing (making an adjective out of a word that is not an adjective, for example ‘fun’ in […]

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