Thursday, October 17, 2013

How bad is bad?

I've just read a very interesting Facebook posting by a friend who was complaining about the growing use of the term "my bad" to mean "my fault".  I don't know if you have come across this usage but I'm inclined to think that anyone who hangs around on Facebook, google+, online forums and chat sites is sure to have seen this.  When I first read it online in either a chat site or a forum, I didn't know what the writer meant.  But with time and the frequency of its use, I soon understood it perfectly and I'm quite adept now at the proper usage of this phrase.  It's only used when you want to admit to a mistake.  For example, if you describe someone as fat and others remonstrate that you're rude and insensitive, you simply say, "Sorry, my bad".  Succinct and to the point and the entire internet community forgives you for your earlier indiscretion.

In her posting, she frowns on the use of this phrase, "my bad".  I won't do justice to her witticism and humour (her article is very witty and humorous) if I do not quote verbatim what she wrote:
We had formidable English teachers at Marymount Convent whose mission in life was to ensure that if nothing else, we would speak English properly. One of my enduring Primary 4 memories is of sitting at my blue wooden desk in my green graph-paper uniform watching our teacher write out in white chalk on the blackboard the difference between nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs.  
I can still hear her voice: “Girls, a verb is an action word. An adverb describes a verb. A noun is an object or a person. An adjective describes a noun.” 
By those rules “bad” was definitely an adjective, as in, “a bad day”. Having had those rules drummed into me since the tender age of ten, encountering “bad” as a noun left me feeling a little linguistically dislocated.
"Bad" is quite a bad deal for those of us who want to make some sense of the language. As a slang, originally US Black English, "bad" undergoes a reversal of sense so that in some circumstances, it can mean "marvellous" or "very good". Before Michael Jackson became white, he sang his greatest hit "Bad" which carries that meaning.  When used in that sense, the degrees of comparison for "bad" are not the standard "worse" and "worst" but "badder" and "baddest". For example one may say as a compliment, "Hey man, that new kid in town is bad, man.  Badder than anyone we know.  He's the baddest."

While I totally share the writer's view on the ugliness of "my bad" and I can never get myself to use "bad" in this way even when I want to sound young and cool, I'm not so sure I agree with the rigidity with which she (or more accurately, her English teacher) pigeonholes each English word strictly into one of the many parts of speech, as such categorization is called in grammar.  As everyone knows, many words can come under different parts of speech and some, like the word "fast" can be a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb.

But the writer is not talking about that.  She is saying, and quite rightly too, that "bad" cannot be a noun.

Now, how bad can "bad" be?  When I gave the matter some thought, I realised that "bad" can be pretty bad.  "Bad" has not only encroached into the realm of nouns, but also clawed its way into the arena of adverbs.  How many times have we heard someone say that he wants something "real bad"?  Or "my school didn't play too bad in that football game"?  You may say "bad" in these examples can only be used informally or colloquially but you have to admit that "bad" assumes a surer footing in the following sentence: "I felt bad after running up that hill" which is permissible even in formal English.  Notice however how peculiar the rules of grammar are in that once you use a different verb or when it is used with the auxiliary verb, "bad" becomes ungrammatical and unacceptable even in informal English.  Try forming a sentence in your mind if you don't believe me.

The writer goes on to decry the use of other adjectives as nouns and in an amazing display of her knowledge of modern songs, she quotes liberally from lyrics which I'm ashamed to say were totally alien to me and I had to look them up on youtube just so I didn't feel as if the world of music had passed me by.

After quoting from the lyrics of a song, "Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?", she wrote, "In the world of perfect grammar it should of course be beauty (a noun), not beautiful (an adjective)..."

Of course she is absolutely right but I cannot help feeling that a little more should be said about how bad the other adjectives really are in the world of grammar and they must have taken a leaf out of bad's book by showing the world how bad they too can be.  In fact, the OED tells us that adjectives have been making forays into the world of nouns for centuries.  For example, the OED records "intellectual" as an adjective that was first used in 1398.  By 1599, it made its first recorded incursion into the domain of nouns and up to this moment, it's not uncommon for us to refer to an intellectual as a person who is intellectual.  There are other examples that I can think of such as "explosive" a perfectly good adjective that somehow decided one fine day to metamorphose into a noun while retaining its adjectival properties.

Even the example given by the writer, the adjective "beautiful", refused to remain a mere adjective all its life.  The OED tells us that by 1756, "beautiful" took upon itself the right to be a noun.  More than a century and a half later, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel called The Beautiful and Damned.  

Now I daresay not even the English teachers of Marymount Convent with their forbidding exterior that the writer writes about with such reverence will dare expose their frown beneath their wimple.

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