Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Sep 3 01:04:10 UTC 1999

At 8:02 PM -0400 9/2/99, David Bergdahl wrote:
>My limited experience with the expression is with a teenager still living at
>home; my understanding is that "my bad" is what one says on the basketball
>court for an error, i.e. "I'm sorry, I screwed up."

Yes, although not only on the basketball court.  We discussed this
extensively a bit less than two years ago (our exchanges should be
researchable through the archive at the web site) after I brought it up,
and I received enough feedback to be quoted--not too unintelligibly, I
hope--in a syndicated column by Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune in
November 1997 which I copy below.  I'm quite sure there's no connection
between 'my bag' and 'my bad':   phonological, semantic, and ethnographic
considerations make this implausible.


>"Bethany K. Dumas" wrote:
>> On Thu, 2 Sep 1999 P2052 at AOL.COM wrote:
>> >It used to be "That's my bag," which was later shortened to, "My bag."  I
>> >think that "my bad" is folk pronunciation of this slang expression.
>> Interesting. Then why is it used only when the speaker is referring to
>> something at which s/he is bad or which is generally considered wrong,
>> illegal, etc. (My experience with the word.)
>> Bethany
                    Copyright 1997 Chicago Tribune Company
Chicago Tribune

November  3, 1997 Monday



BYLINE: Bob Greene.


   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
   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 that 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 that 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 that 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
   "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
since at least the 1940s--it probably began with jazz musicians. It filled a
slot that 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
   "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.)
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