Manute Bol's legacy: did he invent the phrase 'my bad'?

PHO-10Jun19-233071.jpgManute Bol, a former NBA player and human rights activist from Sudan, died this past Saturday at age 47. Most of us remember him as once being the tallest guy in the NBA (he was 7'7") and for his uncanny ability to block and shoot three-pointers really well (most basketball players of that stature don't shoot three-pointers that often).

Bol was known for some things other than basketball, too. Most importantly, he used a majority of his earnings from his basketball career to raise money for Sudanese refugees and youth. He is also the only known NBA player who once killed a lion with a spear. He was once fined $25K for missing two exhibition games because he was busy with peace talks with Sudanese rebel leaders in Washington DC. Some also speculate that he may have invented — or at least popularized — the phrase "my bad." In 2005, a UPenn language blog (found via the Washington Post) concluded that:

[a friend] 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.

Although I am somewhat hesitant to believe that such a widely used phrase could be attributed to the language mishaps of one person, I think it's totally possible and likely that Bol had a huge part to play in its wide use in sports.

RIP Manute Bol. Your presence on the court will never be forgotten.

(Thanks Matt Flannery for the tip!)


    1. Mea culpa means ‘my fault/guilt.’ Though the Romans had an expression for it, Manute – I believe – is more responsible for “my bad.”

  1. Sounds like a wonderful human being — truly. But not the originator, for good or ill, of the use of the phrase “my bad,” which has been in wide use for a good couple of decades or more by young adults who would have heard it in early childhood from their daycare and preschool teachers and aides (and likely from their parents, too, who would have picked it up from the early childhood professionals to whom they had entrusted the care of their little Ashleys and Jasons. Classic form was “Oops, my bad!”

  2. impressive and awesome guy on a few levels.

    -especially compared to a large chunk of NBA players

  3. Ehe.. I disagree.

    I think that Bol could be responsible for the spread of the phrase. He played with all kinds of big basketball stars from every corner of the country all of whom are influential in their own hometowns. He played with them for years and years and they all loved him.

    He began using the phrase, then they did as well. That much is documented. They then went home, used the phrase with their friends and off goes the term. Once a few rappers use it then everybody can hear it.

    It had to start somewhere. The story makes perfect sense. Good post!..

  4. The phrase was in common use when I was in high school, in rural Ohio, from 1979 through 1982. To the best of my knowledge we had no Dinka language influences. Given that rural Ohio isn’t known for its trendsetting, I’m guessing the phrase had been around for a while, even then.

  5. OED quotes “my bad” from a 1986 book “Back-in-your-face Guide to Pick-up Basketball” also a 1986 UNC-CH Campus Slang book

  6. It was common on the pickup courts of Dallas in the mid-80s. I played a lot of pickup ball there 84-88. But it wasn’t uncommon for Mavs players to show up, so it doesn’t rule out the theory that they picked it up from MB earlier and passed it on to us.

    I do remember being resistant to using the phrase because it was usually given as a fake apology after a really rough intentional foul and I thought it was lame. But eventually I was won over (worn down), just as I was with “dude” and “bro.” My bad, dude.

    1. flowerdealer, he was far from a “terrible” basketball player. I’d even say he was the ideal position-player: He was hired to do exactly one thing–block shots–and he did it better than anyone else in the history of the NBA.

      As others have said, though, his basketball playing is the second thing I think of when I think of him. His humanitarian work and complete lack of ego are his defining traits in my mind.

      Back in the early ’00s he went on a “celebrity boxing” show on Fox (in which he scored a victory over “The Refrigerator” Perry). He agreed to do the show on the condition that Fox show the number of his charity foundation during the show.

      Check the “Activism” section of his Wikipedia page for more of the lengths he went to to help others, including giving away almost all of his NBA earnings.

      (By the way, some Washington Post sports blogger is now saying Bol did not coin the phrase “my bad.”)

  7. ‘My bad’ has been in common usage in the Florida beach volleyball scene since at least the early 90’s.

  8. I recall hearing this around 1982 in Cincinnati. I think we’re beginning to see an Ohio pattern here. Thanks again, Cincinnati!

  9. I’m glad boingboing recognized the passing of Manute Bol. The final part of the article mentioned that his presence on the court will not be forgotten. However, sadly, it probably will be, just as we (even true NBA fans) have forgotten the on-court legacy of so many other players. However, it is probable that his off court legacy will not be forgotten. And that, more than anything is what will define him as a player, and more importantly as a human being.

    Further, I wish to argue with the poster who said he was “terrible.” For someone (according to wikipedia, mind you) who didn’t start playing until he was 15+, came from a African, non-English speaking background, he seems to have handled himself pretty well, even if his performance was based on his incredible height.

  10. Manute Bol played at my high school, Rogers High, in Newport, Rhode Island for the short-lived Rhode Island Gulls of the USBL in 1985 with Spud Webb and John “Hot Rod” Williams. Muggsy Bogues played for the Gulls in 1987, but Bol was playing for the Washington Bullets in the NBA by then.

    Here’s an article on Bol and the Gulls from Sports Illustrated from 1985.

    The greatest basketball game I have ever witnessed in person (and I’ve seen a lot of great games) was when the Gulls played the New Jersey Jammers. I’m sure the facts of the game have been embellished in my mind, but I recall the Gulls being down by some ridiculous amount at the half, something like 30, and then coming back to win in triple overtime.

    Here’s a picture of Bol and Webb in the Rogers High gym.

    I still have the 1985 schedule and team poster in storage somewhere.

    >> Manute Bol (7-7, Center, Bridgeport)
    Bol helped “The League of Opportunity” started in 1985. Bol blocked 18 shots twice, a USBL All-Time Record. Bol also shares the All-Time record for the most rebounds in a game with 28. In 25 games for the Rhode Island Gulls, Bol averaged a triple-double, 14.2 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 11.2 blocks and was a member of the 1985 “All-USBL First Team” and the “All-USBL Defensive Team”. Bol is a the USBL All-Time leader in triple doubles with 13 and is second in career blocked shots with 281.

    11.2 blocks per game. Christ.

    As for the “my bad” thing, I remember hearing that all my life when playing basketball in Rhode Island, long before Bol showed up. I distinctly recall hearing it as early as 1980. In fact, I remember when I first heard Bol say it (when he played for the Bullets), I remember thinking it was funny as hell in a Yakov Smirnoff kind of way.

    I’m not saying he picked it up in RI. I don’t know. A lot of Rhode Island idioms were mutations of Boston or NYC slang. If I had to guess, I’d say if it was prevalent in Rhode Island as early as 1980, it originated in Boston or NYC in the 70’s. Therefore, I’d say it’s more likely Bol picked it up when he played in Bridgeport in 1984.

    Finally, Bol was not just some curiosity. He could actually ball. Of course, he couldn’t hold his position in the post, but his intimidation and control of the paint was very real on the defensive end.

    He was easily one of my favorite players of all time. I’m sad that he’s gone.

  11. A British soccer player, trying to translate “in a given moment” created a new phrase in Spanish: “En un momento dado”

  12. Continuing the Ohio pattern, we said ‘my bad’ all the time on the basketball team I played on in Akron from 1985-88. I remember a lot of us were Manute Bol fans, so it’s possible we got it from him.

  13. Manute Bol was a great guy but he didn’t make this up. My high school basketball teammates said this during practice in 1973-75, and none of them were from outside the USA.

  14. Not to start a sports-statistics argument on BoingBoing, but Manute was in fact the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks per minute, and he shares NBA records for blocks in a game (15!) and blocks in a half (11).

    He is also the career leader in block percentage, and #2 on that list isn’t even close:

    Manute was often pictured with 5’3″ Muggsy Bogues because they were teammates on the late-80s Bullets, who thus simultaneously had the tallest player in NBA history (at the time) and the shortest.

    What he wasn’t good at, as you noted, was actually putting the ball in the basket. But his lions-killed-with-spear numbers are unlikely ever to be surpassed.

  15. In high school in New England in the early to mid 1980s, the phrase for taking the blame was “my bag”.

    Not “my bad”, but “my bag”, as in you carry the responsibility.

    I’ve always assumed that “my bad” grew out of a misheard use of “my bag”.

    1. “My bag” as mea culpa? Never heard it used that way. What part of New England was this?

      “Bag” in the 70’s used to mean your thing, lifestyle, or outlook on life. As referenced in the famous James Brown song from ’65 ('s_Got_a_Brand_New_Bag). You could say that dancing was your bag or surfing. Or chasing skirt.

      The Urban Dictionary weighs in:

      I think “my bag” if it was used in that manner was probably a mispronunciation of “my bad,” probably intentional. Kind of like how people say “mang” instead of “man.”

      1. Actually, Deckard68 is accurate, although from various things I keep reading I’m wondering if “My bag” was kind of a regional thing. Everyone I grew up around in Kansas in the 70’s and 80’s said “My bag” as in, “I admit my mistake… I’m the one left holding the bag.” My father is from Minnesota and his family and friends also say “my bag” instead of “my bad.” He says “my bag” was also common in the Air Force, which he joined in the 1940’s. “My bad” seems to have overtaken and replaced “my bag” through the 80’s and 90’s. Personally, I always thought “my bad” came to be from an ignorant person’s misunderstanding and/or mispronunciation of the correct “my bag.”

    2. Yessss! I’ve been waiting for somebody to mention “My Bag.” in Boston in the early 90’s other forms were “My bust”;”my luggage”;”my B”. when I moved to Texas in ’92 everybody was saying “my bad.” I was like don’t you mean “my bag.”

  16. I first heard the phrase while working with a community of Pacific Islanders, in the late 80’s.

  17. In the 70’s, Swen Nater invented the phrase “zap the PRAM” to describe pleasuring oneself.

    I made that up.

  18. But not the originator, for good or ill, of the use of the phrase “my bad,” which has been in wide use for a good couple of decades or more

    ‘My bad’ has been in common usage in the Florida beach volleyball scene since at least the early 90’s.

    Erm, how are either of these evidence that it didn’t appear in the early ’80s?

  19. I remember reading an article about Manute Bol where they brought this subject up in the 80’s (I want to say S.I.), and I also remember thinking “How clueless is the writer of this article? Everyone I know who plays basketball says this.”

    I’m glad that 25 years later, I can now share that quizzical feeling.

  20. I always admired Bol for his humanitarian deeds. But, whether or not the “my bad” attribution is correct or not, I think he may be “the most interesting man in the world” (or at least that’s what the write-up sounded like).

  21. My dad and Bol were born in Wau, Sudan, maybe around 56-57, i think my dad was a bit older though. Anyway, my dad told me that Manute used to drink alot of alchohol, and believe me there aint no percentage chart showing you how much you can drink in Sudan, and the way they make alchohol aint like they make it western society. My point is that could be one of the reason for his death.

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