Manute 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!)