Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Buckets, Boxes, and Bags

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2009

Not a bucket of failure. That would be ridiculous!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.

Bag of awesomeness? No way!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!

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20 Responses to “Buckets, Boxes, and Bags”

  1. bobolinq said

    Isn’t “fail” being used like “love”?

    “An epic fail” = “An epic love.”
    “A bucket of fail” = “A bucket of love.”

  2. What is interesting is that it reads like a shortening of speech; it’s slang developed by text-prone teens (of which I have one at home). But it actually lengthens the phrase:
    “She is awesome.”
    “She is made of awesome.”

    I love “fail” because it concisely describes something you might otherwise devote a sentence to. Fail as a mass noun is not just a failure, but an embarrassment and an “unclear on the concept” moment. Failblog, of course, has many examples, and what they have in common is that they’re stupid, often ironically, and also public. Spilling your drink over a hot woman while making a pass that would have been embarrassing and awkward anyway? Made of fail.

  3. Rachel said

    I have an attestation of “made of awesome” from an IM conversation in May 2006.

    • Rachel said

      The May 2006 example is:
      well she is made of awesome (in reference to a certain writer of essays online)

      Three examples of other mass-nounifications from the same friend who provided the above example:

      March 2009: I got to hold him last night; it was great; he’s made of snuggly (About a baby)

      Dec. 2008:
      which was made of holy

      (In an account of events of the day; Vespers is an evening church service.)

      Nov. 2008:
      i like Abp DMITRI
      he’s made of axios

  4. Ben Zimmer said

    One of the commenters on my “doing stupid” LL post recalled seeing “Did you eat a bowl of stupid for breakfast?” buttons from when he was in high school. I found these examples from the early aughts:

    “Did you eat an extra bowl of stupid this morning?”
    My Little Bit of Nonsense‎, Charlie Walker (2000), p. 20

    “I ate a giant bowl of stupid once.”
    The Firing Line, Mar. 5, 2000

    “I must have eaten a big bowl of stupid for breakfast that morning.”
    It’s Good to Be the King… Sometimes, Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler (2003), p. 350

  5. Neal said

    Bobolinq: Good example. Love is a mass noun derived from a verb, and nobody thinks anything of it. Is it because it’s been in the language so long, or because, say, love is an atelic verb, and it’s easier to do such a conversion on an atelic verb? I need to look into this.

    Rachel: Cool, thanks for the 2006 antedating!

    Your examples remind me of the expression beat (somebody) with an ugly/stupid stick, where ugliness or stupidity is not predicated of the stick; rather, it’s a Noun-Noun compound, where the stick has something to do with ugly(ness) or stupid(ity) — namely, that it causes those beaten by it to have these properties. I heard that expression almost 20 years ago, so I don’t know if there’s any direct path of development between it and what’s going on here.

    Your examples reminded me even more of an expression I heard not so long ago: eat a bowl of fuck (i.e. go to hell), which definitely has the same sound and feel as the current crop of idioms. Fuck, I’ll note, is a telic verb, as are win and fail, so the hypothesis that telic verbs sound odd when used as mass nouns is still standing.

  6. Ben Zimmer said

    Re beat (somebody) with an ugly/stupid stick: A variant “bowl” expression is “Did you eat a bowl of stupid flakes?” And older than that is “Did you take stupid pills?” Stupidity can be ingested/transferred in many forms.

  7. Glen said

    I can give you an attestation from 2001. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More With Feeling” (the famed musical episode), Spike offers Buffy a swig of alcohol, and Buffy replies, “A world of no.”

    I’ll bet there are earlier attestations in Buffy as well. That’s a very Whedon-esque phrasing.

  8. kip said

    What about “a world of hurt”, that phrase has been around for quite a while I think.

  9. Ben Zimmer said

    Related to the “bucket of fail” image above is “shipment of fail.” The original “shipment of fail” image read, “Your shipment of fail has been delivered.” That spawned the Shipment of Fail blog in Dec. ’07, (slightly predating Failblog, launched in Jan. ’08). From the about page:

    Shipment of fail is all about the fail. Loads of fail. Buckets of the stuff. More fail than you can shake a proverbial stick at. So much fail that it almost suceeds at failure 🙂

  10. Neal said

    Another container whose name starts with B occurred to me: bottle. There are hits for bottle of fail, ~ of win, ~ of awesome, ~ of lol (only a couple), but no bottle of no that I’ve been able to find.

  11. Glen said

    Do a Google search for “all kinds of X,” where X is you adjective of choice. “All kinds of stupid,” “all kinds of dumb,” “all kinds of awesome,” “all kinds of irritating,” etc., all have hits on the first page (and NOT with a noun following the adjective). I even found “all kinds of ouch,” which is an example of the intersection as mass noun. I think this phrasing has been around for a long time.

  12. Blar said

    Another use, going back at least to 2002, is to say that something is the X (or “teh X”), where X = awesome, win, lame, stupid, suck, suxor, suxorz, r0x0rrz, ghey, hawt, pwn, … This is a part of leetspeak, and it may have been a precursor to “made of X.”

    Slate had an article on “fail” last year, tracing it to a poorly translated 1998 arcade game which tells you when you lose: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!” The earliest uses I can find of it are on Urban Dictionary from 2003, with both you fail it and fail simpliciter. But I’m having trouble finding examples of “teh fail” from then; the earliest I’ve found is 2005.

    The earliest use of “made of X” that I’ve found is from Feb 2006, when this comment indicates that the phrase “made of win and good” was in use at 4chan (“for the win” and “you win the internet” were also in use at the time). Other sources from that year have ‘win and god’, ‘win and gold’, or ‘win and awesome’ instead of ‘win and good’. Perhaps one of the g*d variations is the original. There’s also a negative version from that year, made of ass and fail.

  13. david said

    In france, I’ve recently noticed expressions such as ‘avoir la win’ and ‘avoir la lose’. Not mass nouns, but similar in meaning.

  14. Neal said

    Thanks, Glen and Kip, for the antedatings and other suggested frames. Thanks, Blar, for the antedatings and many useful links.

  15. […] scrutiny can sometimes undermine them. For example, traditionalists might decry as faddish the current popular use of “fail” as a noun (except for the idiomatic “without fail”), but Chaucer, […]

  16. […] 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 Routes […]

  17. […] noun — an instance of a larger pattern that Neal Whitman (summarizing earlier discussion) posted about a while back, under the heading “Buckets, Boxes, and Bags”, about bucket/box/bag of […]

  18. […] Whitman’s Literal-Minded, 7/1/09: Buckets, Boxes, and Bags (link) mass fail; other mass nounings in […]

  19. […] “bouquet!”) from Keeping Up Appearances. And, recently, a bucket can carry fail: see Neal Whitman and Ben Zimmer on this (and […]

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