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 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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