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November 23rd, 2005

My bad / attribute as a verb / past presidents

by Barbara Wallraff

John Manoogian II, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., writes: “Can you tell me what the phrase ‘My bad’ means? I’m clueless about what it means and how it originated.”

Dear John: Funny that you should use the word “clueless.” The 1995 movie “Clueless,” starring Alicia Silverstone, contains what seems to have been the first mainstream use of the phrase (“Oops! My bad.”). Buffy the Vampire Slayer occasionally said “My bad” too, according to “Slayer Slang,” by Michael Adams.

As for what it means, urbandictionary.com, an online dictionary of slang, contains a good explanation: “My bad” is “a way of admitting a mistake, and apologizing for that mistake, without actually apologizing.” It’s flippant or even a bit rude -- like “No problem.”

There’s some controversy about whether “My bad” was first heard on college campuses, on the street or in prison. But its early use in “Clueless” and “Buffy” suggests that it started out as student slang.

John Bill, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I need your help with a language issue at work. We are adopting a new computer program, which requires us to rewrite the descriptions of products we distribute. The vice president of information technology insists on calling this process ‘attributing the products’ -- pronounced ‘AT-tributing.’ I told him there is no way that ‘AT-tribute’ is a verb. In fact, the noun already has a perfectly good verb partner, ‘a-TRIB-ute.’ He told me I’d better get used to ‘AT-tribute’ because everyone at the software company says it this way.”

Dear John: What you’re objecting to is technological jargon -- and I think of jargon as something that happens between consenting adults in private. A Google search proved to me that “AT-tribute” is widely used in the software industry. So to that extent, your VP is right: You’d better get used to it.

That Google search also proved to me, though, that “a-TRIB-ute” -- the standard English verb meaning, roughly, “ascribe” or “assign a cause or a source” -- is also widely used in the software industry. Here’s a sample citation: “attributing software failures to putative viruses.” Particularly in writing, where there’s no difference in pronunciation to give us a hint, the use of the two versions is bound to confuse people.

If I were you, I’d accept that other people use “AT-tribute,” but I wouldn’t use it myself. I’d say “describing the products” instead of “AT-tributing the products,” and trust that everyone can figure out what I mean.

Scott Blakely, of Downingtown, Pa., writes: “My question is about the proper title for past presidents of the United States. My understanding is that former officeholders are correctly referred to as ‘former President So-and-so.’ Yet the ‘former’ is often dropped from the title. It seems very wrong to me, and also disrespectful of the current officeholder.”

Dear Scott: Paige Trivette, a public-affairs officer in the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the State Department, told me: “It’s common usage to continue to refer to past presidents as ‘President.’ Being president is a lifetime honor, and use of the title is a courtesy as well.”

So it’s official: Bill Clinton is still “President.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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