Manute Bol and the "language experts"

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Five years ago, Geoff Pullum wrote a post here entitled, "Pick-up basketballism reaches Ivy League faculty vocabulary," about the spread of the apologetic interjection "my bad." In an addendum, Geoff raised the possibility that Manute Bol had popularized or even originated the expression while in the NBA in the late '80s (or a bit earlier, in his days playing ball in college). I had sent Geoff a bit of supporting evidence, two snippets from newspaper articles in early 1989 talking about Bol's use of the phrase when playing for the Golden State Warriors.

All of this came up again after Bol died this past weekend, as commentators were looking for ways to eulogize him. Geoff's post was frequently linked to by bloggers (e.g., Kottke, Boing Boing, Deadspin, The Atlantic Wire), and the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg gave the "my bad" story a thorough going-over on D.C. Sports Bog.

Finally, in the echo chamber that is ESPN's "Around the Horn," Bill Plaschke announced (at around 21:50 in the podcast here):

You might not know this. He coined the phrase 'my bad', back in the late 1980's. Language experts have pretty much proven this. When they said 'My fault' he would say 'My bad' because he didn't understand the language.
(h/t Larry Horn on ADS-L)

Well, nothing like that has actually been proven by the "language experts." Though sportswriters first began noting Manute Bol's usage in 1989, "my bad" now has been established back to 1985, with anecdotal evidence going back earlier than that. You can read the whole story in my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus here.

[Update: And now U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback gets in on the action -- at 0:55 in the video below.]

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28 Comments »

  1. Steven said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    There's no way Manute Bol came up with that expression. When I started playing basketball in the early 1970's, several high school teammates were already using it.

  2. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 4:29 am

    I see that Dan Steinberg credits me as "British professor of linguistics Geoffrey K. Pullum". Sigh. Don't think that I reject my exotic ethnic heritage: I was born in the British Isles to British parents, yes. But I find it odd to be described as British when I wrote the Language Log post in question as an American resident and citizen (since the Reagan administration) and veteran University of California professor. I was writing about an American game from an American address on an American-run blog hosted at an American university site. And since I have seen my ethnicity used against me in places as diverse as fark.com and The Chronicle of Higher Education (I point out that Strunk and White were full of shit and people answer by dismissing me as "British" or "Scottish"), let me stress that like lots of my colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh where I currently work, I'm an American, folks. Deal with it.

    By the way, one of the languages under intensive study here in Edinburgh is the Western Nilotic language Dinka. That was Manute Bol's native language. It is one of the hardest languages I have ever seen or heard about. Each time I learn more about it my mind is reboggled.

  3. Dan Steinberg said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    Geoffrey,

    Certainly no disrespect intended. Just thought it was a descriptive word. Maybe it was misleading or unnecessary, but I didn't think this was going to become such a hot topic this week.

  4. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    I just took a gander at wikipedia's scanty coverage of Dinka, which is limited entirely to phonetics, and already I'm intimidated. "The Bor (southeastern) dialect is known to contrast modal voice, breathy voice, faucalized voice, and harsh voice in its vowels, in addition to its three tones."

    Whoah. Now I *really* want to learn it…

    [It's more extraordinary than you think. As the work of Bert Remijsen has shown, in addition to the three laryngeal states and three tones you mention, the language has three vowel lengths! And in Language vol. 85 no. 3 (2009) you can see a paper revealing that of the many, many different ways to form plurals of nouns in Dinka, none of them is the default. There is no default! For every new noun in Dinka, it is a complete toss-up what kind of pluralization rule will be used for it! —GKP]

  5. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    "British professor of linguistics Geoffrey K. Pullum"
    Perhaps that's less of a (post-BP) insult and more of an extreme case of American-Hyphenationism-Syndrome with the 'American' elided. I'm in a similar position to you, only I'm still in the US—or rather in Texas (which many down here seem to think is not the same thing at all). I'm still "the Brit" (oh! how I hate that term! I always add the "-s OUT!") and I find that my colleagues are intimate with their ancestry: able to reel off their origins back to real or imagined progenitors a millennium ago. They all seem to be happily hyphenated.
    The only exception to this is Charlie Chaplin whom I have frequently found included in lists of 'Greatest Americans of the Twentieth Century'. Apparently with no irony intended.

  6. language hat said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    an extreme case of American-Hyphenationism-Syndrome with the 'American' elided.

    The "American" is never elided. Do you see Eisenhower referred to as a German general, or Martin Luther King referred to as an African? No, it's clearly a case of turning a blind eye to Geoff's actual citizenship, and I completely understand his irritation with it.

  7. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    I was thinking that in this case the 'American' was only being elided because 'British-American' seems so—I can't think of an accurate term: Odd? Contradictory? Revolutionarily-Insensitive?? Tobacco-y???

  8. Joe said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    I can understand his irritation, so this is more a language question. Is it common to use a hypen for people who acquired citizenship later in life? I know Brits who have dual citizenship, but no one rfers to them as a British-Norwegian: they are a Brit. If I see someone described as a British-American, I would assume that one of their parents was British and the other American. Granted, I don't know if nationality is even relevant here, but what is the customary way to refer to Professor Pullum? (and does the US allow dual citizenship?)

    (should I duck now?)

  9. Dan Steinberg said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    Hey guys! I'm the author! I'm right here, explaining what happened! No need to guess!

    This was a throwaway word in an item (hastily written during my daughter's bath) about a dead professional basketball player who had once played in Washington. I did not, believe it or not, extensively research Mr. Pullum's citizenship. A quick glance at his cv — which is all I paid, since I was really writing about a basketball player — makes it seem fairly obvious that he's British. I don't know why I included the word, but I promise you, I was not trying to say a single thing about his real or imagined progenitors, nor was I deliberately attempting to obfuscate his actual citizenship. I was just trying to be descriptive. Had I known the real and true story of his citizenship, I would not have included the word.

    Again, many apologies.

  10. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Hey, guys! I'm the topic! Arguing needlessly with Dan Steinberg! But wasn't the topic supposed to be poor Manute Bol?

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Back on topic: More from Dan Steinberg here.

  12. Jim said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    "Do you see Eisenhower referred to as a German general"

    Yeah, as in the joke about who the most successful German general of WWII was. The Herms always used to roll their eyes at that one. It's a NATO thing, I guess.

    "If I see someone described as a British-American, I would assume that one of their parents was British and the other American. Granted, I don't know if nationality is even relevant here, but what is the customary way to refer to Professor Pullum? "

    "(and does the US allow dual citizenship?)" The US does not recognize it, as in ignoring it. If Professor Pullum comes up on charges that..lessee…could lead to the death penalty, so the British Consulate "rings around" and says "See here, that's one of our people" the answer will be "Beastly weather we're having, isn't it?"

    The mixed ancestry thing is one reason to get a hyphen, but not the only one. It also applies for pure-breds born in the US – Chinese-American – or for immigrants in general after naturalization. At least that's how I've heard people use those terms.

    But in matters of language, I can't see how a natz certificate and a ceremony are going to change you from being a Brit. Your Scouse or whatever will erode over the years but never go away. It doesn't seem to have much affect on a strong Korean accent either.

    "or rather in Texas (which many down here seem to think is not the same thing at all). '

    A lot of the rest of us think about the same thing – especially after the last presidency.

  13. David Steele said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    As one of the sportswriters who believed that Manute Bol at least popularized "my bad," and as someone who admires and respects Dan Steinberg as a colleague, I'd like to point a couple of things out: 1) You have now sucked all the life and fun out of this topic; 2) Great Britain and Germany are countries, Africa is a continent, and believe me, even as linguists, you don't really want to go down that road.

  14. Dan T. said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Manute Bol's parents should have named him "Basket Bol", and his brothers Base and Foot so they could all get into sports.

  15. Jon Lennox said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    I suppose I'm over-educated, but I always thought of "my bad" as an overly-literal translation of "mea culpa".

  16. RSS said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    I am just an accidental wanderer but Professor Pullum's first comment caught my eye as did the other off-topic comments so I thought I would add mine.

    I have had the unenviable pleasure of watching the BBC in Asia over the last ten years and I have come to realize American is not a good word to the British in general. In fact, "the Americans" has a distinctly negative connotation. Whatever follows – or the context – can usually be assumed to be bad. When it is not, words like "the West" or "NATO" or even "North America" are substituted in order to take the bitterness out of it.

    I am a naturalized American myself and I have lived and worked in London but I never thought I would run into a "British subject" who complains about not being recognized as an American. I think I need to cut down on my BBC.

  17. william trexler said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    I started it in Baltimore in 1969 One time I hollered at my girlfriend "I'm Bad".and she thought I said My Bad and that was bad english.so after that I would say it a lot to just make her mad ..I have a dated birthday card that I didn't send that says "MY BAD" this saying spread in my northern high school in baltimore in 1969.I think He picked up my saying in baltimore where it had been around for over 20 years.My year book has my picture in it signed "MY BAD" sept 1969

  18. t1 said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    I specifically recall using "my bad" during pick-up football games in the mid 1970s as well.

  19. Mark P said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    This probably doesn't add much to the discussion, but I am from the northwestern part of Georgia, quite close to Alabama, and I never heard "my bad" until I started working in Huntsville, Al., in the mid-80s. I first heard it from a native of the area who lived for a while in Texas, for what that's worth.

  20. Peter Sattler said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    First encountered it in the very late 70s in Milwaukee, usually during basketball games but soon throughout middle school.

    I remember this because for an embarrassingly long time, I thought people we're saying "my bag!"

    (This is my own eggcorn, I guess, since the idea of "my bag" made a some sense to me — kind of like owning it, laying claim to the error).

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    You can't renounce British citizenship; it's a right not a gift.

    So Geoffrey is stuck with it, and the description is accurate.

  22. ShadowFox said,

    June 23, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    The Manute Bol coinage story never had legs, but I do have some data that point in the direction as to where Bol got the expression. Although he only played basketball in Sudan, with virtually no coaching, once he got to the US he had both coaching on the courts, informal coaching advice and regular practice in the form of pick-up games. The latter certainly would provide him an opportunity to learn a few phrases that otherwise would have been unavailable to him. There are two separate dates to watch for. I believe, Bol arrived in the US in 1983. He played one year for Division II school in Bridgeport (CT?) in 1984-85. I am not sure what pick-up games are like in that part of CT, but, once drafted and signed by the Bullets, he certainly would have had opportunities.

    Why am I so sure Bol played pick-up games? I have a friend who remembers playing with him circa 1988 when he was with Golden State. Apparently, he'd been a fixture on Berkeley and Oakland courts at the time. I was living in Berkeley in 1990-92 and, although Bol moved on by then, I've run into some washed up college players and even some pros who were either bit players or got spat out by the league following injuries. If Bol did not pick up "my bad" in his days in Washington, he certainly would have picked it up in Berkeley. Since his English, at the time, was otherwise limited, it is easy to see how a single expression that he did know could have acquired a life of its own as something he might have coined (it would be hard, since there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the expression predated Bol's arrival by 15 years or more). He certainly did not coin the expression in 1988, as I heard it that year in Ohio–in pick-up soccer (not even basketball!) games.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    "British-American" would be odd in any event as applied to a person, because for purposes of discussing origin/ethnicity/ancestry in the U.S., the U.K. is usually decomposed into smaller parts — one would instead speak of oneself or someone else as having, as the case might be, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Scotch-Irish (which I take it is an Americanism not actually in much current use back in Ulster) etc. antecedents. If I were speaking of someone w/ dual citizenship, I would probably go with the initialism U.S.-U.K. (or possibly the other way around).

  24. Diane said,

    June 23, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    @ David Steele

    Tell me what road exactly would we be headed down if we described Eisenhower's ethnic heritage by a country (Germany) and Martin Luther King's by a continent (Africa)? I know nothing of Eisenhower's heritage but I'm pretty certain you can't come up with a more precise description of King's than African-American. Is there some specific African country that you would like us to reference?

    I'm sorry, but the kneejerk reaction: "any mention of Africa as a unit is an insult to the diversity of Africa" annoys me no end. Africa is not a taboo word. There are times when it is the most logical unit of analysis.

  25. language hat said,

    June 24, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    Yeah, I was puzzled and irritated by David Steele's odd drive-by snark, but figured it would be pointless to ask him about it.

  26. John Cowan said,

    June 26, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    Joe: Hyphenation is common in countries settled by immigration, such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia. When the descendants of immigrants blend in with the pre-existing population, they generally lose the ethnic label, but that rarely happens in the first generation.

  27. Kate said,

    June 28, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    For what it's worth, in high school during the aughts in Atlanta, Georgia, I heard the phrase shortened to "my b." The usage, to my knowledge, was unique to the suburbs of Atlanta; I did not encounter the phrase until I moved from the city to the suburbs midway through high school (although I heard "my bad" all throughout childhood).

  28. Rocky Raccoon said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Peter: In Michigan in the 80s and 90s, people would say "my bag" instead of "my bad." When I moved to Texas in the mid-1990s I was ridiculed terribly for saying "my bag."

    Manute probably picked it up from me inadvertently, but flubbed the delivery with his accent. For the record I also probably invented the phrases "petting sweater" and "hang loose." Probably.

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