Origins of “My Bad”

115

Pick up Basketball

I received a comment on our Facebook page recently by a mom who is concerned about her teenagers’ use of the expression “my bad.” She asked if it was “grammatically correct.” Here’s how I answered:

 

Ha. No, my bad is not grammatically correct in the traditional sense. Bad is an adjective, not a noun, and it’s a grammatical oddity to follow a possessive pronoun with an adjective that modifies nothing. It’s akin to saying my happy or my sleepy.

On the other hand, it’s an idiom, which means it’s an expression that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules of grammar. It’s just “a way of saying” something. Lots of common and accepted expressions are “grammatically incorrect” in the same way.

Some brief research shows that my bad has been around since at least the 1980s. It seems to have arisen out of urban American culture. Some bloggers have attributed the expression to Manut Bol, an NBA star in the 80s who immigrated from Africa and whose native tongue was Dinka. The suggestion is that he meant “my fault but didn’t have a sufficient grasp of English vocabulary. His teammates teasingly picked it up and it spread from there. Most experts dismiss this as unfounded conjecture, but I thought it was an interesting story (Bol, by the way, was the tallest player in NBA history at 7’7″).

My bad been around a few decades now and seems to have caught on, particularly among the young. There’s even a book titled My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them. Words and expressions change and get added to the official lexicon all the time in English. It can make us uncomfortable, but it happens in every generation. Cool once referred to nothing more than temperature, but since the 1950s, we’ve all got used to its sense of “culturally agreeable” or “generally pleasing.” Gay once meant nothing but happy.

My bad may yet fade from popular usage, but it seems to have some staying power as an informal substitute for “my fault.” Like it or not, we should probably get used to it.

*****

Have a different perspective? A related question? Please comment below!

 

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  108. Tammy Maria Settles
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    Dear Brian,
    Speaking of idiomatic language, I have a question about a word my grandfather and his generation used quite often. I noticed not only Grandpa, but also movie actors of the first half of the 20th century began sentences with the word “Why,” although no question was being asked. For example, “Papa Larkins, did you ride to school in a school bus?” He would have answered, “Why no, we walked to school.” Other ways of using this word peppered his speech. Such as, “Why, I believe I’d add a bit of sugar to the tea.” Or, “Why, your Grandmother was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.” Or, “Why, she may have even outshone the moon with her smile.” Do you recall this seemingly archaic usage of this word? Can you think of what words have replaced it, if any?
    Sincerely, Just Curious in NC.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-02-2014

      Great question! I’d never thought of it, though I watch enough old movies to have noticed this usage.

      It’s using “why” as an interjection that seems to indicate some slight surprise or perhaps protest.

      According to the OED (I love the OED!), this usage dates back at least to 1520. It appears in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at least twice:

      1600 Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing iv. ii. 39 Why this is flat periurie, to call a Princes brother villaine.
      1600 Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing v. iv. 74 Bene: Do not you loue me? Beat. Why no, no more then reason.

      One linguist on a discussion board hypothesizes that it derived from the interrogative use of why to indicate puzzlement or wonder, but he was admittedly guessing.

  109. Nell Gwynn
    Nell Gwynn04-09-2013

    excuse me, correction “CONVERSE”

  110. Nell Gwynn
    Nell Gwynn04-09-2013

    I absolutely refuse to aknowledge or coverse with someone who has such a bad use of the English Language! “My bad” is a truely hideous expression and an incorrect one at that. There are many people these days claiming that language is “elvolving” and “changing” all the time and that we must accept such a ghastly expression or term!
    The language is not evolving this is just the excuse of the ever increasing youth of today who are such ill educated baboons they cannot even spell their own name! All these kids using this god awful text talk like “M8″ and “L8R” what the hell do those even mean?! If I recieve a text with such words I reply “I do not understand” then I hit the delete button pronto!

    I am all for new expressions or sayings if they reflect the English language in a poetic or literate way. I am only 28 years old, my writing skills are most likely not as good as they were in my school years when I was second top of the class, However I utterly refuse to make a shambles of the English language the way kids do today! Bad grammar and use is just one big ear ache to me and inexcusable!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko04-10-2013

      Thanks for sharing your opinion, Nell. I see things a bit differently, of course, but I’m glad you were willing to post how you feel.

      It’s more than just a claim that language is evolving. It’s simple fact. Words are added to and deleted from dictionaries every year. Twenty years ago words like mobile phone, internet, and blog didn’t exist because the things they name didn’t exist. None of us use “thee” and “thou” anymore. Such examples are numerous.

      I once felt like you do, but have come to be less concerned with correctness, which is honestly a bit arbitrary anyway, and have learned to enjoy the malleability and creativity of our language. I agree that some of the change is ugly and unfortunate, but I find just as often that English gets richer and more evocative over time.

      You might be interested in this recent post of mine that discusses these ideas: http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2013/04/is-there-such-a-thing-as-a-grammar-error/

  111. Gordy
    Gordy07-17-2012

    He was actually 7’7″. Your bad. :D

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