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Manute Bol and "my bad"

Of all the many fascinating things I've read about Manute Bol this weekend, here's the most bizarre: a language blog written a few years ago suggested that Bol might have been responsible for coining and/or spreading the phrase "my bad."

(I'm not trying to be flip; for the really touching and moving version of Bol's legacy, please read The Post's obit, or Kevin Blackistone's column from South Africa.)

The "my bad" item, written by British professor of linguistics Geoffrey K. Pullum (the co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) quotes one source who recalls first hearing "my bad" in the Bay Area in 1988, after Bol had joined the Golden State Warriors. And indeed, if you run an archives search on "basketball" and "my bad," the first three usages are all linked to Bol.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 10, 1989: When he throws a bad pass, he'll say, ''My bad'' instead of ''My fault,'' and now all the other players say the same thing.

USA Today, Jan. 27, 1989: After making a bad pass, instead of saying ''my fault,'' Manute Bol says, ''my bad.'' Now all the other Warriors say it too.

Sporting News, May 15, 1989: Bol says "my bad" when he means "my fault."

Now, I happen to doubt that Manute Bol's grammatical quirks could really have taken over the country. And a reader from P.G. County has already told me that he and his friends were using the phrase in middle school, well before '88.

By January of 1990, the St. Petersburg Times was quoting Dwayne Schintzius saying "Sorry, fellas, my bad." By the end of 1992, the Wisconsin State Journal was citing "my bad" in a story about high school trends, defining it as "'What you say if you mess up instead of my fault."

Still, it was apparently novel enough that by 1997, the Baltimore Sun's Andrew Ratner could write an entire story about the phrase and its use on urban basketball courts, reporting that it didn't appear in a 1994 glossary, "Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner," Ratner heard a guy on a basketball court use it in the heat of a game.

"My bad? It didn't take me long to realize he meant "my fault," which as a mode of apology apparently is as outdated as calling one's girlfriend his "steady."...

"My fault" sounds appropriately contrite. "My bad," which apparently is always said while thumping one's chest, is a more aggressive form of expressing regret. It is a perfect mode of apology for an era when people, especially pro athletes and politicians, are loath to apologize. If, as Erich Segal wrote in "Love Story" that "love is never having to say you're sorry," then "my bad" is the latest way of never having to say you're "sorry" either.

In the same year, the Chicago Tribune's Bob Greene wrote a column on the phrase, for which he contacted several linguistics professors, some of whom hadn't heard of "my bad." One of these professors, Larry Horn from Yale, "was under the impression that it was a slang phrase that began in inner city neighborhoods--during sports competition--and has begun to enter the wider language."

"It's been around for a while," Horn said. "The first time I heard it used was on 'ESPN SportsCenter,' where the anchors were talking over a videotape of someone fumbling or making an error. The anchor said 'My bad' in a sort of funny, joking way....

Does professor Horn think "My bad" will become a regular part of English usage?

"It's hard to tell," he said. "It's hard to predict which words or phrases will stick. 'Cool' is one example of a word that filled a need. It's been around since at least the 1940s--it probably began with jazz musicians. It filled a slot that no other word really filled. But 'My bad'? We already have 'My fault,' so I don't know if there's a real need for it."

Pullum acknowledges that the timing is perhaps a little off, and posits that possibly Bol originated the phrase during his early days at Cleveland State and Bridgeport U. in the early '80s, whence it spread. I think it's equally possible that Bol picked it up from being in P.G. County and helped bring it to California. But regardless, Nexis shows Bol as the first pro basketball player to regularly use "my bad," which is a wacky enough fact on its own.

(Via David Steele)

By Dan Steinberg  |  June 19, 2010; 7:35 PM ET
Categories:  Wizards  
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Next: George Michael interviews Manute Bol


I recall hearing it in soccer circles in the mid 80's.

RIP Manute.

Posted by: rdpinva | June 19, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse

I remember growing up in North East DC in the late 70's early 80's many of us regularly said 'my bad'. This is ridiculous.

Posted by: kenshejoezac | June 19, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Manute was a great individual and worked tirelessly for Sudan, but giving him credit for "my bad" seems a bit over the top. The next thing you know, we'll hear that Manute invented the internet.

Posted by: calhokie | June 19, 2010 11:36 PM | Report abuse

Only man in history to kill lion with a spear, nail 6 three pointers in one half in an NBA game, and invent a catch phrase.

He was an amazing man. R.I.P Manute

Posted by: Barno1 | June 20, 2010 2:42 AM | Report abuse

God's speed Manute Bol. the angels are beckoning you ashore to a new land. Well Done!

now lets hope someone else pick up the torch and continue your earthly work.

Posted by: ChooseBestCandidate | June 20, 2010 3:18 AM | Report abuse

Wake up Guys, the phrase "My Bad" has been in use for decades. Back in the late 60's we used the term for My Fault when we dropped a pass or missed a block. It also fit in for "excuse Me, or I'm sorry". Some one said it years ago "There's nothing new under the sun".

Posted by: fdlaidback69aolcom | June 21, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

Wake up Guys, the phrase "My Bad" has been in use for decades. Back in the late 60's we used the term for My Fault when we dropped a pass or missed a block. It also fit in for "excuse Me, or I'm sorry". Some one said it years ago "There's nothing new under the sun".

Posted by: fdlaidback69aolcom | June 21, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

My sympathies to Manute Bol's family on his untimely death.

There is verbal testimony that the expression "my bad" was in use in the 1970s and earlier, but the evidence in the printed record has not yet provided a date before the 1980s. The comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the term, and the earliest citation in the OED is dated 1986:

1986 C. WIELGUS & A. WOLFF Back-in-your-face Guide to Pick-up Basketball 226
My bad, an expression of contrition uttered after making a bad pass or missing an opponent.

I have located a cite that appears slightly earlier in 1985 in a Florida newspaper:

1985 November 14, Gainesville Sun, "Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of SEC football" by Bobby Tyler, Page 3E, Gainesville, Florida. (Google News Archive). Here is an excerpt:

Yes, the Vols still must host Vandy the following weekend, but c'mon, Vandy? Oops, my bad, I forgot for a moment what the Commodore did to Georgia. Silly me.

The Washington Post itself has a story that links the saying "my bad" to Manute Bol in 1989. The article is by Tom Friend and appears a few days before the stories listed in this blog above by Dan Steinberg.

1989 January 8, Washington Post, "Bol Blocks Out Old Troubles on West Coast" by Tom Friend, Page B1, Washington. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers) Here is an excerpt from the second to last paragraph. "He" refers to Manute Bol:

The best thing about him is he keeps the Warriors loose. When he throws a bad pass, he'll say, "My bad" instead of "My fault," and now all the other players say the same thing.

Posted by: garsonotoole | June 21, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

There's no way Manute Bol came up with that expression. When I played high school basketball in the early 1970's, several teammates were already saying it. I'm curious about the reporters who wrote about this in 1988-89; where were they from?

Posted by: marzolian | June 22, 2010 2:26 AM | Report abuse

I grew up in DC and I distinctly recall first hearing "my bad" used on the lacrosse field when I was a freshman in high school in 1982. If it was a localism, perhaps Bol spread it and popularized it outside the DC area; but he did not come up with the phrase.

Posted by: jay4811 | June 22, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Looks like I'm the winner with a 1969 date in baltimore at northern high school and it's all true.

Posted by: wtre428476 | June 22, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Any one want a photo copy of my 1969 northern high yearbook signed by me "MY BAD"..dam I was good looking

Posted by: wtre428476 | June 22, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Baltimore Sun Newspaper has verified my 1969 signed yearbook "MY BAD"

Posted by: wtre428476 | June 22, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Baltimore Sun Newspaper has verified my 1969 signed yearbook "MY BAD"

Posted by: wtre428476 | June 22, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

"My bad" was common when I was going to school in rural Alabama in the 1970s.

Posted by: johnacraft | June 22, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Beyond the embarrassment that any self-respecting individual with anything beyond an eighth grade education should feel at employing what is, no more nor less, a deplorable ghetto locution like "my bad" (is there anything more pitiful than white people trying to be black?) the deeper problem is a society in which too many people expend far too much time and energy trying to remain current and fashionable.

As a result, all the adoption of idiotic expressions like "ramp-up," "throw under the bus," "props" and "disconnect" (used as a noun) serves to do is identify individuals who are so obsessed with being perceived as "cool" that they are willing for their speech to be misunderstood, and be thought idiots, by those with enough education to know better. That those with the superior education are the ones who also end up running the world and its institutions should be no trivial matter. As a boss, I'm far less apt to hire someone who'd stoop to using "my bad" than someone who doesn't.

As regards my business and its bottom line and reputation, that's MY GOOD.

Posted by: Sage_on_the_Hudson | June 22, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to explode the Manute Bol myth, but I can assure you that kids in rural Kentucky where I grew up in the mid-1960s used 'my bad' routinely to describe an overthrow or other miscue. I probably heard it first around 1964, possibly earlier, and after that heard it constantly on baseball fields and basketball courts. I'm amazed that it was considered a new, or very obscure, construction 25 years after that.

Posted by: PigSkin | June 23, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

it stems from latin. "mea culpa."

Posted by: misterxroboto | June 25, 2010 10:06 PM | Report abuse

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