Language, as usual, is in crisis, and one symptom of this is an accelerating tendency in various areas of discourse to use verbs as nouns. A television writer might promise a big “reveal” in a forthcoming episode, a manager will demand a “solve” for a problem in the company, and many of us have become accustomed to describing a favour as a “big ask”, a blog post as a “long read”, or a discrepancy between two opinions as a “disconnect”. It can work the other way too, and the best examples of nouns-into-verbs come from parodies in British sitcoms. “Do you desk?” asks a hipster media-type to a new office-mate in Nathan Barley, while a publicity consultant’s training exercise in The Thick of It turns the name of a brutally convivial popular entertainer into a verb for group participation: “let’s MacIntyre this: stand up, chairs to the side”.
If management gurus are the imposing super-ego of this kind of semantic jumbling, then the chaotic id is to be found in that other hothouse of linguistic experimentation: internet youth culture. The online world of videoed skateboarding accidents, poorly judged selfies and obscene mobile phone autocorrections has produced one of the more distinctive instances of the verb-into-noun in its employment of the word fail. Those who humiliate themselves in public, on message boards, or in the vicinity of a camera phone may have the offending action described as a fail. Fail as suffix can be appended to other specific spheres of life, so dating fail, parenting fail, and dancing fail are all popular search terms. These individual fails are widely archived on blogs and in youtube compilations.
The verb-into-noun of which fail is such a vivid example might remind us of an episode in Jonathan Swift’s great satire Gulliver’s Travels. Swift imagines a group of scientists who, frustrated with the language’s inherent instability, devise “a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever”. Reasoning that “words are only names for things”, the scientists replace words with objects, advising people to simply carry around everything they might want to refer to on their backs. “I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight”, says Swift, “who would hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements and take their leave”. Today, the verb-into-noun betrays a similar impulse. Suspiciously ineffable abstract processes such as revealing, solving, and indeed failing, can now be transfigured into reassuringly concrete nouns: “names for things”, of the kind one might sling onto one’s back.
But the idea that a fail in particular could, in being made into a noun, be treated in language as an object with material properties of its own seems rather troubling. Failure, conventionally, is negative: it denotes an aspiration or intention that, through some chance contingency or personal inadequacy, has not happened, or has not come into being. The insight that this seemingly innocuous example of internet slang imposes on us is that an instance of failing is actually never a simple absence or lack-of-happening. Rather, it imbues this lack with what the philosopher Alenka Zupančič has called “a certain – rather ghostly – materiality of nothing”. Treating the fail as if it were an object in its own right drags this lack-of-happening, however imperfectly, into the plain of reality, as a sort of ghost of the event as it would have been if successfully executed. In which case, describing somebody’s screw-up as a fail is hardly the ungenerous jibe it initially seems. In doing so one is gifting at least this ghostly material hint of the event as it could have been if successful. To put it in terms that would easily fit into a management consultant’s training manual: fail is the ghost of success.