The Grammarphobia Blog

My bad!

Q: A Washington Post sports blogger has discussed speculation that Manute Bol, the NBA player who died last month, may have coined the phrase “My bad.” Is there any chance this isn’t a tall story?

A: No, the 7-foot-6 Manute Bol, the tallest person to play in the NBA, did not coin the phrase “My bad.”

Language sleuths say  the phrase (roughly translated as “My fault” or “I blew it” or even “Whoops!”) was tossed around on playgrounds and basketball courts before the Sudanese player was quoted as using it. 

Ben Zimmer, the New York Times Magazine’s new “On Language” columnist, has written about this elsewhere – in his Word Routes column on Visual Thesaurus.

So far, word detectives have found examples of “My bad” in print going back to 1985. (Bol was not quoted using it until 1989.) Anecdotal reports, which are not  authoritative, have the phrase showing up as early as the 1970s.

“All of this makes it unlikely,” Zimmer concludes, “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, Zimmer adds, Bol’s “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.”

We should add that Dan Sternberg, the Washington Post blogger, expressed doubts in his original posting that Bol actually coined the phrase.

And Sternberg later posted an update on his D.C. Sports Bog (yes, “Bog” is correct), citing Zimmer’s  good work on “My bad.”

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