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February 10, 2006

The origin of 'My bad'


The best evidence obtainable at present points to Manute Bol (above), the 7'7" Sudanese NBA player whose native tongue was Dinka, as the inventor, sometime in the 1980s, of this now–ubiquitous phrase.

Geoffrey K. Pullum told the story in his December 7, 2005 blog post.

    Here is the relevant portion:

    Ken Arneson emailed me to say that he heard the phrase was first used by the Sudanese immigrant basketball player Manute Bol, believed to have been a native speaker of Dinka (a very interesting and thoroughly un-Indo-Europeanlike language of the Nilo-Saharan superfamily).

    Says Arneson, "I first heard the phrase here in the Bay Area when Bol joined the Golden State Warriors in 1988, when several Warriors players started using the phrase."

    And Ben Zimmer's rummaging in the newspaper files down in the basement of Language Log Plaza produced a couple of early 1989 quotes that confirm this convincingly:

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 10, 1989: When he [Manute Bol] throws a bad pass, he'll say, "My bad" instead of "My fault," and now all the other players say the same thing.

    USA Today, Jan. 27, 1989: After making a bad pass, instead of saying "my fault," Manute Bol says, "my bad." Now all the other Warriors say it too.

    So all of this is compatible with a date of origin for the phrase in the early 1980s (Manute Bol first joined the NBA in 1985 but came to the USA before that, around 1980).

    Professor Ron McClamrock of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Albany tells me he recalls very definitely hearing the phrase on the basketball court when he was in graduate school at MIT in the early 1980s, so the news stories above could be picking the story up rather late; but it is still just possible that Manute Bol was the originator, because he played for Cleveland State and Bridgeport University in the early 1980s, and his neologism just could have spread from there to other schools in the northeast, such as MIT.

February 10, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on Jun 2, 2006 12:19:52 PM


When I moved to Kentucky in August, 1977, the high school kids were using it all the time.

Posted by: TED | Jan 26, 2010 12:32:13 PM

Dear Author,
I uttered this phrase in 1974 to a friend of mine. My tongue got twisted when I mean't to say, "my fault" for a bad move. I take the credit for beginning this phrase. I knew it would take off because my friend Barry continued to say it.

George Wade
Oskland, TN.

Posted by: George Wade | Jun 25, 2009 11:28:19 AM

This came up today in a conversation and a couple of the older guys said that they used to say it in their high school basketball teams here in North Carolina back in the 70's. I have a suspicion the origin goes back further than that.

Wish I had a source, but you might look back further than you had been.

Posted by: AndrewM | Nov 30, 2006 9:57:30 AM

These are white people making these "reports" of what they heard??

Posted by: Three Layer Cake | Feb 10, 2006 12:04:00 PM

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