My bad?

中国日报网 2014-03-25 10:50



My bad?

Reader question:

Please explain “my bad” in the following:

If it (ObamaCare) succeeds, great for the USA, if it fails, Obama can say “My bad”.

My comments:

If ObamaCare, the Affordable Care Act that was signed into law by Barack Obama in 2010, succeeds, then it’ll be great for America, especially its poor; if it fails, then President Obama can take a personal blame for it and say: “It’s all my fault.”

“My bad” means “My fault”, literally. It is perhaps short for “My bad mistake”.

President Obama would never say “My bad”, of course, at least not during his presidency – “My bad” sounds too juvenile and shouldn’t be in his vocabulary as President of the US of A.

Or, on second thought, he might be able to use it on the right occasion, such as when he meets with Miami Heat players at the White House. The Heat are reigning NBA champions who have already visited the White House twice and Obama is an avid basketball fan.


So Obama, or one of the Heat players for that matter, may say “My bad” in small talk when something minor goes wrong during their visit.

At any rate, “my bad” is a youth term probably developed in the inner city playground. In basketball play, for example, if a player misses and easy layup, he may say “My bad”, or when he passes the ball to an opponent or steps out of bounds with the ball, etc and so forth.

I have been following the NBA for 30 years and clearly remember one incident involving Sam Perkins, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics. In one game many years ago, in fact it was when Perkins was in his rookie or first year, Perkins failed to recognize that Pierce was open when he had the ball at the free throw line. Instead of passing the ball to Pierce, the star of the team, Perkins shot the ball himself and missed badly. Rivers, the coach, immediately called timeout. After gathering the players in a huddle, Rivers said to Perkins, while pointing toward Pierce: “Let me introduce you to a teammate. This is Paul Pierce.”

And what had Perkins, now playing with Oklahoma City Thunder, to say but “Coach, my bad.”

Alright, here are other people who admit to a mistake or fault by saying “My bad” rather than “Mea Culpa”, which is Latin in origin for a formal apology:

1. 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.

- Manute Bol’s legacy: did he invent the phrase 'my bad'? By Lisa Katayama,, Jun 21, 2010.

2. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is attempting to defuse the growing political crisis over the handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Mrs. Clinton said she was taking responsibility to avoid a political “gotcha.” The Benghazi tragedy was far more than just a “bump in the road,” as President Obama described it. If Mrs. Clinton wants to accept the blame, she also should accept the consequences.

Mr. Obama seems more than willing to let the buck stop with Hillary. The White House at first tried vainly to pin the blame for the deaths on a YouTube video. Mrs. Clinton wrote off this misstep as resulting from the “fog of war” even though the story was concocted entirely in Washington. Now the administration’s invented account has collapsed, and attention has turned to the cover-up rather than the crime.

Responding to a question about Benghazi, White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week that “the buck stops here” was “unartful, made-for-television phrasing.” Nonetheless, Mr. Obama has played the buck-stopper on several occasions. On May 28, 2010, he spoke forcefully on his responsibility for the BP oil spill cleanup. “I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis,” he said. “I’m the president, and the buck stops with me.” He made a “solemn pledge” to hold himself accountable.

Mr. Obama used the same expression responding to a previous terror attack. On Jan. 7, 2010, while discussing the failed al Qaeda Christmas Day underwear bomb plot, he said he was “less interested in passing out blame than I am in learning from and correcting these mistakes to make us safer. For ultimately, the buck stops with me.” He added that “as president, I have a solemn responsibility to protect our nation and our people. And when the system fails, it is my responsibility.”

The system clearly failed Stevens and the others slain by terrorism in Benghazi. Yet this time, Mr. Obama is less interested in holding himself accountable. He continues to spike the football over the operation that took down Osama bin Laden, but he claims to have been out of the loop when it comes to Libya. Apparently, he is accountable only for the good news — a dead ambassador is someone else’s problem.

There remains the question of what taking responsibility means. It is not enough for Mrs. Clinton simply to say “my bad” and move on. There should be some consequences for the flagrant negligence that led to the deaths of four Americans, one of whom was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in 30 years. At least the secretary of state is showing more character than her boss. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton said that dealing with America’s crises would “require strong presidential leadership a president who knows from Day One you have to run a government.” She added, “The buck stops in the Oval Office.” Democrats must be wondering if they backed the right horse.

- Editorial: Passing the buck on Benghazi, The Washington Times, October 16, 2012.

3. All over the internet lately, folks have been making very public mistakes and making apologies of varying degrees of effectiveness and watching all of this happen very much in public has made me think about how we deal with mistakes and pain and hurt in our schools.

We all make mistakes that end up hurting other people – and most of time the hurt we cause is unintentional. In schools, that happens all the time. Teachers are dealing with four or five classes a day with 30 kids in them. Administrators juggle the needs and wants of teachers, students, parents and districts. And students, in addition to all of the school-based content they are learning, are learning what it means to be human in a rather confusing world. All those folks in close quarters every day… it is a wonder that we get through the day at all.

So inevitably, we hurt one another.

One of the things we should learn is how to deal with it when we do that.

Randy Pausch gave us a pretty good roadmap in his last lecture when he outlined the steps for a real apology. His steps:

1. What I did was wrong. 2. I am sorry I hurt you. 3. How can I make it better?

You don’t even have to say that you didn’t mean to hurt the other person. You don’t have to get defensive. You just have to simply say, “My bad.”

As educators, this can be really hard to do when students are trying to tell us that we hurt them. Kids don’t always tell us that we’ve hurt them in the best way. They get angry, they act out, they compound our mistake with their own. And as teachers (and certainly as principals), we can get hung up in their reaction rather than in our initial action or we can think that we might appear weak by saying, “I’m sorry” or we can worry so much about our over-work, our exhaustion, our sacrifices – our ego – that we lose sight of the people in front of us.

I wish I could say that I’m great at this all the time. I’m not. I’m plenty prideful, and I can think of far too many moments where my own mess got in the way of really listening to the other person and making the best apology I could make. But I try. I endeavor to be a person that the students and teachers of SLA feel comfortable coming to and saying, “Here’s how you screwed up today…” or worse, “Here is how you hurt me today,” secure in the knowledge that their concerns will get listened to openly and honestly, and that they can feel that I am willing to apologize, mean it, and work hard to do better.

All of this is to say, there is incredible power in the words, “My bad.”

We should all get more comfortable with owning our shared, flawed humanity and be willing to say them more often.

- The Restorative Powers of ‘My Bad’,, January 10, 2014 by Chris Lehmann.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Silver bullets?

Bet the farm?

Cooking the book?

Left out to dry?

Push the envelope

Loan shark rate?


(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)


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