I hadn't been on a basketball court in a while, at least not with anyone old enough to shave. My knees barked to remind me the absence had been at least a few years, but it seemed even longer than that after one of the 30-something crowd with whom I was playing dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds.
"My bad," he said, beating his chest.
JTC My bad? It didn't take me long to realize he meant "my fault,"
which as a mode of apology apparently is as outdated as calling one's girlfriend his "steady."
Days later, I heard the phrase again, this time from Gerry Sandusky, sports anchor at WBAL-TV. On his radio talk show, he had cut off a caller by mistake and apologized on the air with "my bad."
Contacted later, Sandusky explained that he was merely poking fun at the term and had spoken about it himself earlier on his broadcast. He explained it was "urban terminology" that had been around a couple years.
Street sayings come and go, but this twist of an adjective into a noun struck me as especially inventive -- a macho way to apologize without conveying weakness.
"My fault" sounds appropriately contrite. "My bad," which apparently is always said while thumping one's chest, is a more aggressive form of expressing regret.
It is a perfect mode of apology for an era when people, especially pro athletes and politicians, are loath to apologize. If, as Erich Segal wrote in "Love Story" that "love is never having to say you're sorry," then "my bad" is the latest way of never having to say you're "sorry" either.
Lena Ampadu, who teaches writing at Towson University, envisioned that the phrase began in the black community and wended its way into the mainstream, like a lot of hip hop vocabulary and style, from backward baseball caps to baggy shorts. That was one of the points raised in the Ebonics flap last winter: Culture is a two-way street.
"My bad" must be fairly fresh, however. I couldn't find it in a 1994 glossary, "Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner," by Geneva Smitherman.
The closest was a listing for "bad," a phrase that crossed over from the black community decades ago. Its slang meaning -- "good, excellent, great, fine" -- comes from the Mandingo language of West Africa, meaning literally, "It is good badly," or "so good it is bad."
Obviously, Oxford's New English Dictionary, published in the 19th century, couldn't shed much light on my search either, although it came eerily close.
One of its footnotes for the definition of the word "bad" referred to a line in English author Alexander William Kinglake's book, "Eothen," of 1845: "I secretly smiled at this last prophesy as a bad shot."
Perhaps Kinglake could have meant a bad dribble, also.
Andrew Ratner is director of suburban editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/28/97