my bad

Margot sipped her latte and grimaced. “I wanted it made with nonfat milk!” she protested.

“Whoops,” Daryl said, pulling his own from the tray he had just brought. “My bad.”

Margot grimaced even more. “Your bad? Why can you not speak good English and say my fault or my error?”

“Since when is bad bad English?” I said with feigned innocence.

“If anything,” Jess said, playing along, “it’s gotten better. Aside from its positively toned colloquial use in African-American Vernacular English, its presence in English seems to stem from an original word bæddel referring to a hermaphrodite or effeminate male. Leaving aside the fact that that is the exact opposite of the modern slang sense I just mentioned, it’s not very heartening to think that such people were the subject of such opprobrium that they became the byword for poor quality. So much better to see this word and its original subjects separated and freed from that.” She sipped her cappuccino with ostentatious propriety.

By this time, Margot was looking at us over her glasses with one eyebrow raised. “You know what I mean. We don’t use bad as a noun.”

Daryl started whistling a recognizable tune from Ennio Morricone. Jess paused for a moment, then named the movie Daryl had in mind: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!” She high-fived him. He turned to Margot: “The bad.”

“But you’re not referring to your group of bad people!” Margot said.

“Well,” I said, “why can’t we have a bad if we can have a good? You know, a good as in a good thing done? Here – let me give an example.” I turned to my laptop and opened a recently viewed article, Nicholas Kristof’s “Most Valuable Helper.” “Manute Bol,” I said, summarizing, “a seven-and-a-half-foot NBA star player originally from Sudan who died just this past weekend – June 19, 2010 – was so focused on building multifaith schools to help bring peace in his native country that he not only got his fans to donate to the cause, he not only buttonholed members of congress for it, he donated most of his own wealth. The first school will open soon. Is that not a good? Has he not done a good?”

“Well, yes,” Margot said, “but it’s not really idiomatic to say that one has done a bad. It sounds like child talk, in fact.”

“Perhaps it’s from the talk of a non-native speaker,” I offered.

“Well, I wonder if that’s where it came from.”

I was smiling as I tapped a few more keys and pulled up a Language Log post by Geoffrey Pullum, “Pick-up basketballism reaches Ivy League faculty vocabulary.” “In fact, it has its origins in pick-up basketball games at the collegiate level. In the 1980s, it came to be popular to say my bad if you made a bad pass or missed an opportunity – similar to how a chorister might raise his or her hand after singing a wrong note in rehearsal, to acknowledge the fault. Now, that might indicate an origin in African-American Vernacular English. But actually, there’s some pretty good evidence – as you’ll see here –” I turned the laptop towards Margot – “the person who started it was not a native speaker of English. He was a native speaker of Dinka, a Nilo-Saharan language. It caught on probably in part because he was such a salient player. Here’s a quote from a USA Today article written after he turned pro.” I pointed at the screen.

Margot read it out: “After making a bad pass, instead of saying ‘my fault,’ Manute Bol says, ‘my bad.’ Now all the other Warriors say it too.”

Daryl had an impressed and pleased look. Jess, grinning widely, said, “Well, I think his good was good enough that we can take his bad!”

3 responses to “my bad

  1. I am so pleased to read that i am not alone in my appreciation of “My bad.”

    I knew nothing of its origins, for me i first heard it from a teen aged co-worker (white, middle, maybe “lower middle class”) and for sure he used as much “street” jargon as he could, and i picked up some of that. Some of it still sounds doofy on my aged Caucasian male lips, and i sometimes enjoy the ironic tinge thereof. But “my bad” – with exceptions i will list later – is a very positive expression. At least the way i’ve always seen it.

    I have been rightfully scolded countless times for apologising too much. Too readily. And with great circularity, i have always been moved to offer a genuine expression of regret for that. Such expressions are not terribly abundant in the language(s) i speak. The way i see “my bad” is such an expression, and i welcome it, if only for variety in my life of many regrets. Most expressions we have for remorse or guilt are quite muscular. Like “remorse” and “guilt”. They are not small, and very often need modifiers such as “slightly” – which can easily diminish the perceived sincerity. “My bad” – as it came into my own verbal life anyway, is a two-syllable admission of remorse that needn’t be overly elaborate. It says “That was my fault, i own that and will avoid further fault as best i am able.” in a concise way, and i have found it refreshing for that.

    It works wonders in the right proportion of the mistake, insult or misdeed. “I dropped your writing pen in some mud. I am sorry.” It can be an antidote for apathy and selfishness – without also calling undue attention to itself. It is a quiet atonement, at least when applied appropriately to small offences. “I killed your pet rabbit, my bad.” is as unacceptable as would be a trailing “oops!”.

    But i have also seen in my life before this gem, that exorbitant contrition can seem just as wrong. Now, to be sure, there are people that use “my bad” in such a way that it is clear by their tone, or possibly by their repetitious iterations of the same offence, that they don’t mean anything. I once posted an essay of praises for this expression, and a few people replied that they hate it, and this hollow further insult was the sense with which they were familiar. When i analyse it, the word “my” is of great importance. “I own this error.”

    Superlative post, yet again!

    • Thanks! The friend who sent me the link to the Language Log post observed, “I dislike this phrase a little less now :)”. I haven’t ever really disliked it, though it did seem odd to me at first, and it’s undoubtedly pointedly nonstandard – but we use colloquiality as an indicator of friendliness, so that’s suitable.

  2. Update: It seems, with more information, somewhat less than certain that Bol was the absolute origin of my bad. But he likely did play a good part in spreading it. See .

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