Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Manute Bol Theory of "My Bad"

After former NBA star Manute Bol died over the weekend, tributes in the sports pages recognized his awesome shot-blocking skills (it helped that he was 7-foot-7) and his equally awesome humanitarian work in his native Sudan. Another frequently cited legacy is that Bol popularized (or even coined) the expression "my bad" as an athletic mea culpa. On the ESPN gabfest "Around the Horn," Bill Plaschke even said of the supposed coinage, "Language experts have pretty much proven this." Let's investigate.

"Language experts" haven't actually given Bol sole credit for "my bad," but a Language Log post in 2005 by Geoffrey Pullum did float the idea that he was the originator. Pullum relied in part on a couple of newspaper quotes I had uncovered from early 1989, when Bol was playing with the Golden State Warriors, tying him to the phrase:

Washington Post, Jan. 8, 1989
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.

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.

The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg adds a May 15, 1989 quote from The Sporting News ("Bol says 'my bad' when he means 'my fault'), and Google Books turns up another 1989 source, Martin Manley's Baskeball Heaven: "When Manute makes a mistake, his Sudanese dialect leads him to say, 'my bad,' and he does have to say it occasionally."

Though Manley presents "my bad" as simply an error brought on by Bol's lack of proficiency in English, other sources say that he picked it up from his fellow basketball players after coming to the United States. Take this explanation from Leigh Montville's 1993 biography Manute: "He didn't know English, but he sure liked to talk. He quickly used all the phrases of the practice game, saying, 'Let's get busy,' or 'I'm kicking it,' or 'My bad.'"

Given all the evidence, Montville's suggestion that Bol merely spread the phrase instead of inventing it is a lot more credible. Thus far, the earliest known printed examples are from a few years before the sportswriters began talking about Bol's usage. The Oxford English Dictionary gives these citations:

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.
1986 UNC-CH Campus Slang (Univ. North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Mar., My bad, expression to admit one has made a mistake: A: 'You did the wrong homework set for today.' B: 'Oh, my bad.'
1987 Dallas Morning News 9 Dec. B11/4, 245-pound sophomore center Dwayne Schintzius [is] not out to hurt anybody. He jabbed me in the eye, and he said, 'My bad.' He didn't mean to do it.

An even earlier example was recently discovered on Google News Archive by Garson O'Toole:

 

1985 Gainesville Sun 14 Nov. 3E 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.

 

I also found a Mar. 20, 1988 USA Today article by Gannett writer Rick Bozich quoting Rex Chapman of the University of Kentucky basketball team using "My bad." "It's a playground term, folks," Bozich wrote. "It's a term usually uttered when a player believes his last pass or shot was particularly silly."

A playground origin is quite plausible, and it could have been percolating around pick-up basketball games for years before making it into print. There are anecdotal reports of its use in the late '70s and early '80s, and one commenter on Dan Steinberg's Post blog even claims it was used in the late '60s (though that seems a bit of a stretch). All of this makes it unlikely that Bol was the first to come up with "my bad" when he began playing in the NBA in the late '80s, or even in his earlier collegiate days. Nonetheless, his natural ebullience must have done much to popularize the expression among his fellow ballplayers, despite the language gap. The big man's outsized personality made "my bad" his own.

[Update #1: Welcome, readers of the Washington Post's D.C. Sports Bog!]

[Update #2: And now U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback gets in on the action -- at 0:55 in the video below.]


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 3:40 AM
Comment by: Edmund S. (Bronx, NY)
I love that English is a living language, however, I hate when 'bad English' adopted...
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 4:58 AM
Comment by: Mickey L. (Agios Markos, (neos oikismos) Greece)
Hi -- great article. I read it with much interest and a good bit of amusement.

Just for the record though, I lived in NYC from 1973-88 and the expression "My bad" was used constantly throughout the culturally African-American community... NYC, Harlem particularly and Brooklyn, Long Island, etc. etc. It was especially popular in the entertainment industry and club scene.

Loved reading about this.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 6:35 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Loved the article. It turned my feelings around on a phrase that used to roundly irritate me. This also gives me an opportunity to share VT with sports fans. Some of them would not normally be interested in word origins. I
am always looking for tools to draw others into a love of words. I hope they will find this web site as informative
and fun packed as I do. Thanks VT.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 7:12 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I think a good web site encourages you to be interested in many topics. VT has done just that with this article. After reading this piece, I decided to learn more about Manute Bol. I had never heard of him, as I am not a sports fan. Watching a video of him blocking shots was a wonder to see. I credit you VT for educating me with words. More importantly, you have expanded my interest in a variety of subjects. Maybe now I will become a basketball fan, as I continue to study with the VT community. Thanks so much.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great detective work as usual, Ben. I think it won't be long before anyone laying claim to a word or phrase's origin will have to stop and think whether they want to be so bold. Fear the Zimmer!
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fascinating. I'm with El: this has helped soften my feelings about the phrase. I never liked it much, and I'm unlikely to use it, but knowing more about its history has undercut my slight bias against it.

On a largely unrelated note: the name Bol is unfamiliar to me; on the few occasions I came across it recently, it kept suggesting BoI, a common abbreviation here for Bank of Ireland.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I get annoyed when I hear "my bad" in a context other than basketball, because it seems like it's something less than an actual apology. It's not the same as saying "I'm sorry" or "My mistake"; it seems like a lazy way of deflecting anticipated blame.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Diane P. (Naperville, IL)
While I'm not a huge fan of "my bad", I occasionally use it when working my call center job helping gift registry couples and their gift buying guests.

I think that using it with a laugh for a little "oops", perhaps with an "I'm sorry" or "My mistake" when needed is perfectly acceptable. I feel it humanizes and adds color to me, a faceless voice on the phone. Otherwise, I'm a automaton mouthing canned statements.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 3:49 PM
Comment by: W.S. W. (Dallas, TX)
good stuff, interesting theory but I agree with a previous commenter that this not-so-artful phrase dates (at least for me, growing up in the Midwest to WAAY back in the dark ages of 1978 or so.

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