Buckets, Boxes, and Bags
Posted by Neal on July 1, 2009
A recent discussion on the American Dialect Society email list concerned the conversion of fail from a verb to a noun. Grant Barrett mentioned that he had included it in a December 2008 article that he and Mark Leibovich wrote for the New York Times Week in Review. They had said:
Largely used online, this is a verb turned into a mass noun, as in “A bucket of fail.” Common forms include epic fail, meaning a huge overall tendency toward failure or a great example of failure, and FAIL! as an interjection or derogation. Often an antonym of win, seen online in forms like “Full of win!” which means, “It’s good!” (Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett, Dec. 21, 2008, “The Buzzwords of 2008″, NYT Week in Review
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.
Verbs turning into nouns is nothing new. But I’m more used to seeing them turn into count nouns, as in two wins. Furthermore, these new mass nouns can’t be used in just any phrase where you might want a mass noun; as Zwicky noted in one of his emails to the ADS list, “all the examples i’ve seen have the nouning as the object of of, and then only of in certain uses.” We’re not seeing uses like This team is hungry for win, or Fail is a dish best eaten cold. More typical are the frames full of or made of, or references to boxes, buckets, or bags of whatever the new mass noun is referring to.
Adding to the picture is that it’s not just verbs that are getting turned into mass nouns. Here’s what Urban Dictionary has to say regarding made of win:
Follows the theme of using ‘made of *insert word here*’ as a way to describe something. Slang, usually found on the internet, although quite uncommon at present.
The writer of that definition was right on target. In addition to the verbs fail and win, there is also the adjective awesome, often in the phrase made of awesome. I first encountered this idiom from Erin McKean, who informed that she had once met J.J. Abrams and found him to be “completely made of awesome.” She was not the first to use it, though: It seems to have come into being in early to mid 2008, judging by searches on Google Books, Google Groups, and plain old Google. The earliest made of awesome is from April 2008, on a website by that name, with archives going back to that month. I’ve also just learned that the adjective stupid can be used in the same way; see the comments on this Language Log post from Ben Zimmer. Google searches also turn up attestations of bucket/box/bag of stupid/aweseome.
The writer of the Urban Dictionary definition goes off track, though, when they say:
Although it doesn’t seem to follow English grammar properly, win can be defined as a noun, so it isn’t always grammatically incorrect, it’s just nonsense.
However, [phrases] such as made of awesome are grammatically incorrect, but still used.
I’ll bet that deep down, this writer finds made of win, made of fail and made of awesome equally strange-sounding, but they give made of win a pass (at least syntactically, if not semantically) because it just so happens that win is also a noun. They could justify their dislike more consistently if they recognized the difference between mass nouns and count nouns. What’s disturbing them about all the examples, I believe, is not so much the use of the words as nouns, but as mass nouns.
Anyway, the definition writer did provide one more piece of good information, pointing out that people might say that something was “made of LOL”. I’d call LOL an interjection, so now here’s another kind of word that’s getting turned into not just a noun, but a mass noun. I checked, and sure enough, there are attestations of made of LOL out there, as well as bucket/bag/box of LOL. However, LOL is actually not the first interjection I’ve heard as a mass noun. That honor goes to no, in the movie Juno. In one scene, the potential adoptive father of Juno’s baby floats the idea of leaving his wife for Juno. She is thoroughly disgusted and tells him (to the best of my recollection), “No! No! That’s a big, fat bag of no!” What’s more, this quotation is my earliest antedating of this kind of mass-nouning, since the movie came out in 2007.
If you have other examples of non-nouns turned into mass nouns like this, especially 2007 or earlier, let’s hear them!