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. tongue1.gif

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

Chicago Tribune