"Murphy's Law"

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Fri Dec 15 22:13:41 UTC 2000

    In my earlier ads-l message today I mentioned I would send along
information on Barry Popik's treatments of "Murphy's Law." Here now
is some of it:

    Barry has two items on this subject in _Comments on Etymology_:
Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen: "'Murphy's Law'--material for the study
of its origin," _Com. on Et_, vol. 28, no 5, Feb. 1999, pp.1-10.
Barry Popik: "'Murphy's Law'--errors in the _NY Times'_ obituary of
John Paul Stapp," vo. 29, no. 5, Feb. 2000, pp.18-20.

     Barry's research on this topic indicates that the search for the
original Edward A. Murphy as the formulator of "Murphy's Law" is a
search for the will o' the wisp.  For example, Major John Paul Stapp
(who did exist and who is said to have worked with Edward Murphy), is
given credit for popularizing the law he acquired from Murphy.  But
there is no mention of Murphy's Law in Stapp's 1960 reminiscences.
Nor is there any mention of Murphy's Law in the reminiscences of
Albert Boyd (Commander at Edwards Air Force Base, where Edward Murphy
was supposedly employed) nor in _Collier's_ June 25, 1954 article
about John Paul Stapp.
     Meanwhile,in the 1962 book _We Seven_ by seven U.S. astronauts,
the astronauts say (p.161) that Murphy was a fictitious character in
U.S. navy cartoons used as a training tool. And they attribute the
expression "Murphy's Law" to this bumbling fictitious character. But
the film was made in 1957--two years after the first (1955)
attestation of "Murphy's Law" located by Barry.
So the astronauts (great men all) stumbled etymologically.
     But their statement is also interesting for showing a complete
unawareness of Edward A. Murphy. If Edward Murphy really did exist
and work at Edwards Air Force Base,, his having contributed an
expression to English should have given him some recognition among
the astronauts. But they show no awareness of him at all.
     In his Feb. 2000 article, Barry comments: "I have tried very hard
to verify this story [about Stapp and Murphy, and the start of
"Murphy's Law"] with contemporaneous documentary evidence, but I
didn't find any, nor did Edwards Air Force Base."

----Gerald Cohen

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