December 07, 2005

Pick-up basketballism reaches Ivy League faculty vocabulary

The authoritative discussion of the phrase "my bad!" at this Random House site says it originates in pick-up basketball as a phrase used by young urban players when admitting to an error. It has spread to other domains and is now used widely to mean something like "I admit that I have made a mistake." It was nominated for "word of the year" (not that it's a word, it's clearly a phrase) in 1999, but in fact it was already at least twenty years old by then. The upsurge in its popularity is claimed to have a lot to do with its having been used in the 1995 movie Clueless. Well, let the record show that it has now truly arrived. It has reached the vocabularies of Ivy League faculty. Or one Ivy-League faculty member's vocabulary, anyway. I recently heard it used, not at all self-consciously and not really jocularly, by an assistant professor of philosophy from Princeton giving a lecture in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard. (It was in this sort of context, though I didn't transcribe the actual one: "Now, you might think that the response by the antirealist to this objection could be just to say, ‘Whoops, my bad’, and weaken the main thesis without giving it up . . .").

I take it that to be used by a Princeton faculty member giving a lecture at Harvard must be, for a word or phrase, like playing Carnegie Hall for a musician. It must be the sort of thing that a new coinage longs for, the sort of occurrence that makes its mother's heart swell with pride. So I would predict that "my bad" is here to stay for a while, in mainstream use, in the vocabulary of grownups.

Added later, after a little help from my friends: Ken Arneson emailed me to say that he heard the phrase was first used by the Sudanese immigrant basketball player Manute Bol, believed to have been a native speaker of Dinka (a very interesting and thoroughly un-Indo-Europeanlike language of the Nilo-Saharan superfamily). Says Arneson, "I first heard the phrase here in the Bay Area when Bol joined the Golden State Warriors in 1988, when several Warriors players started using the phrase." And Ben Zimmer's rummaging in the newspaper files down in the basement of Language Log Plaza produced a couple of early 1989 quotes that confirm this convincingly:

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 10, 1989: When he [Manute Bol] 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.

So all of this is compatible with a date of origin for the phrase in the early 1980s (Manute Bol first joined the NBA in 1985 but came to the USA before that, around 1980). Professor Ron McClamrock of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Albany tells me he recalls very definitely hearing the phrase on the basketball court when he was in graduate school at MIT in the early 1980s, so the news stories above could be picking the story up rather late; but it is still just possible that Manute Bol was the originator, because he played for Cleveland State and Bridgeport University in the early 1980s, and his neologism just could have spread from there to other schools in the northeast, such as MIT.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 7, 2005 11:17 AM