June 17, 2006

My adjective

Back in February of 2005, Caity Taylor noticed the expression "my bad", and argued that "if this is to become widespread, then other adjectives must be able to be used in the same way, for example, 'my good', 'his stupid' etc.". I suggested that "while logically sound, this reasoning seems to be empirically false, since 'my bad' has been common for years in this part of the world, but I've never heard any analogous expressions in general use", where "an 'analogous expression' would be a possessive pronoun followed by an evaluative adjective used as a noun, referring to a specific event or action". Well, apparently Gary Trudeau has been thinking about this problem, because he's figured out how to slip one of these analogical formations into the Doonesbury strip that ran on June 14 (as Will Fitzgerald pointed out to me a few days ago by email):

In case you haven't been following the strip, that one is is part of a series that ran from June 12 to today, in which Zonker Harris has a "conversation" with B.D. in the kitchen of their house. B.D. never actually says anything, or even changes his facial expression, although he does indicate by changes of gaze direction that he's paying attention:

What Zonker and B.D. take away from the interaction is typically different:

Anyhow, just as "my bad" means something like "what I did was bad" or perhaps "I'm the one who did something bad", so Zonker's "my brave" means something like "what I did was brave".

As I observed in commenting on Caity's blog post, there's no real syntactic barrier in English to usage like this: we've been using adjectives as the heads of noun phrases, at least in limited ways, since Shakespeare's time and before -- "the good is oft enterred with their bones" and so on. And there's no pragmatic barrier in our culture to using a noun phrase like "my mistake" or "my fault" as an acknowledgment and apology. The trick is in combining the two.

According to Ken Arneson's research, reported here by Geoff Pullum, this trick was first performed by the Sudanese-American basketball player Manute Bol, perhaps because adult language learners are more likely to try logical generalizations of features that native speakers use only in more limited ways.

So with Zonker's encouragement, maybe we'll all start congratulating ourselves with "my thoughtful", apologizing with "my stupid", accusing others with "his rude" or complimenting them with "her brilliant", and so on. One small issue is that second-person forms like "your idiotic" are homophonous with the corresponding clausal forms "you're idiotic" etc. But that sort of ambiguity between innovation and conservatism may be an advantage.

[Update -- Tom Raworth has pointed out to me by email that "my bad" and "my brave" are phonetically equivalent to exclamations "Am I bad!" (as in "aren't I bad!") and "am I brave", given the common practice of dropping initial sounds in speaking (e.g. "s wonderful").

This is true, but I don't think it was involved in the origin of the phrase or its original spreading in the U.S.

In (my experience of) the original basketball context, "my bad" was used either to call a foul on yourself (e.g. after a collision) in a game played without a referee, or to signal that you're the one who committed the foul when the referee blows the whistle (in that case you also raise your hand, the purpose being to let the scorer know who to charge the foul to).

This doesn't imply, even ironically, that the user is essentially "bad" or generically at fault -- a typical game involves dozens of fouls, and everyone commits a few. The expression just acknowledges that in the most recent encounter, you were the one (perhaps technically) in the wrong. The commonest equivalent standard expression would be "my foul", in the implied context "that was my foul".

Note that in this case, it's accepted that something specific has happened (there was a significant collision under the basket, or the ref blew his whistle), and the question to be addressed is who (if anyone) is formally at fault.

When I started to hear this expression generalized to everyday life, around 1992, it happened in two kinds of cases: correcting simple mistatements, and taking the blame for something (typically a small thing) going wrong:

A. Now that coal is $50 a pound...
B. $50 a pound? What are you talking about?
A. My bad, I meant $50 a ton...

A. Sally called again today about the XYZ forms, what's going on with that?
B. I thought we sent those out last week.
C. That was my bad, I forgot to put them into the mail until yesterday.

Here the closest equivalent, it seems to me, is a very specific acknowledgment like "(that was) a mistake = what I said was a mistake" or "(that was) my fault = what happened was my fault", and not some generic exclamation (whether sincere or ironic) like "aren't I bad!"

In these extended contexts, as in the basketball game, it's clear that something has gone wrong -- there's a difference of opinion about a factual point, or some problematic (if minor) action or failure to act has been brought up -- and the question on the table is who (if anyone) is at fault in that specific case, not what anyone's overall moral character is like. What was funny about the use of "my bad" in the Doonesbury strip for Feb. 11, 2004 ("So what do you say after you invade another country by mistake? Oops, my bad, sorry about all the dead people?") was the idea of using this inconsequential excuse in a serious context:

Now, it's certainly true that "my bad" is phonetically identical to "Am I bad!" with prosiopesis of the initial vowel. But I can't imagine anyone saying "Am I bad!" in the basketball context, or in the other sorts of scenarios that I described, whereas "(that was) my foul/fault/mistake" works fine. Still, Tom's observation points out that everyone has the chance to apply their own theory when they learn a new expression, and therefore to generalize it in their own way. So maybe we'll start seeing some generalizations of "my bad" along the lines that Tom suggests, e.g. "tee bad" = (isn')t he bad" or "zee bad = (i)s he bad", instead of "his bad". (But I doubt it...) ]

[Update #2: Several readers have suggested a different way to construe "My brave" in the June 14th Doonesbury, as if it were a translation of the French vocative "mon brave", which would make it similar to English vocative expressions of the form "my <adjective>", such as "my dear" or "my sweet". I don't think this is nearly as plausible as the view that the phrase is meant as a generalization of "my bad", but you can decide for yourself.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 17, 2006 07:23 AM