Saturday, May 1, 2010

My bad

The other day, I asked the members of the American Dialect Society
mailing list when people started saying "My bad." Jonathan Lighter
writes, "'My bad' was print in 1980, reported as being a common term
among mostly
inner-city teenagers in pick-up basketball games. It took quite a few
years to catch on in the media." According to Laurence Horn, as late
as 1997, it was still unfamiliar to most Americans. As evidence, he
cites this Chicago Tribune column:

Chicago Tribune, Monday, November 17, 1997

If you heard this phrase here first ...

By Bob Greene

ATLANTA -- It was the second time in two days I had heard the phrase.

This time I was walking through the airport here, and as another
traveler and I were heading toward a boarding gate we bumped into each
other.

The man stepped back and, with an apologetic expression on his face, said to me:

"My bad."

As I say -- the second time in two days I had heard it. And both
times, it clearly meant what the man in the airport -- a young
businessman-type -- intended it to mean. "My fault." Or "Excuse me."
But the phrase was "My bad."

I would have assumed the guy was for some reason talking baby talk, or
maybe he was a European who did not have a fluent command of English.
But because this was the second "My bad" I had heard, I sensed a new
phrase might be getting ready to creep into the language.

It struck me as a rather juvenile thing to say: "My bad," as if to get
across, "I have done a bad thing." I got in touch with a linguistics
expert I had consulted before on a situation like this -- professor
William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania -- and he said: "My
bad? That's a new one on me. You have to have your ear to the ground
all the time on these things. I'll look into it."

Professor Labov said "My bad" sounded like a Southern construction to
him, and referred me to another leading linguistics academician,
professor Guy Bailey of the University of Texas at San Antonio. He
hadn't heard of it, either. "My bad?" he said. "I don't know that
one."

Professor Larry Horn at Yale University did know it. "It doesn't mean
'Excuse me' as much as it means 'That was my fault,' or 'I'm sorry,' "
professor Horn said.

He said he was under the impression it was a slang phrase that began
in inner-city neighborhoods -- during sports competition -- and has
begun to enter the wider language. "It's been around for a while," he
said. "The first time I heard it used was on ESPN SportsCenter, where
the anchors were talking over a videotape of someone fumbling or
making an error. The anchor said 'My bad' in a sort of funny, joking
way.

"But it wasn't intended to be a funny phrase when it was first used.
It was a way to say 'I'm sorry' for a sports mistake, and it was meant
seriously."

Does professor Horn think "My bad" will become a regular part of English usage?

"It's hard to tell," he said. "It's hard to predict which words or
phrases will stick. 'Cool' is one example of a word that filled a
need. It's been around since at least the 1940s -- it probably began
with jazz musicians. It filled a slot no other word really filled. But
'My bad'? We already have 'My fault,' so I don't know if there's a
real need for it."

At Harvard University, Bert Vaux, assistant professor of linguistics,
said his students tell him that "My bad" is already being used in
places few would expect.

"One of my students' fathers is an attorney," Vaux said, "and in his
law firm, some of the young lawyers are using 'My bad' in a serious,
straightforward way."

So you've got a phrase that may or may not have begun on inner city
sports fields, now being used by business travelers in airports and
attorneys in big law firms. "I don't understand the socio-linguistic
situation with businessmen," Vaux said. "But I do think that this did,
indeed, begin in urban centers among young men playing sports. You
would typically hear it if a person made a bad pass or something. He'd
say 'My bad' -- he'd be telling his teammates that he knew it was his
fault."

It's not the most grown-up phrase you can think of -- the thought of
millions of people going around saying 'My bad' to each other is an
odd one -- but there's no way to know just yet if 'My bad' will
quickly fade away, or will be with us for years and years.

"Words are like any fashion item," said Yale's professor Horn. "If
kids from one group start to wear their pants baggy and low, other
people who would not usually do it may do it, and spread the look.
Like fashion, words and phrases go from one region of the country to
another, from one social group to another."

Didn't much like today's column, did you? My bad.

(Or on second thought, your own bad. I thought it was a very nice column.)


Paul Frank
Translator
German, French, Chinese > English
Huémoz - Aigle - Neuchâtel, CH
paulfrank@post.harvard.edu