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!”