"Murphy's Law"

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Dec 16 00:07:59 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


But the engineer Murphy did exist, didn't he? Didn't B. Popik talk with his
son? Perhaps back in 1949 (say), he said something completely unmemorable,
such as "If there's a way to do it wrong, that guy will find it" --
something thousands of people have said, before and since. Perhaps somebody
remembered this 20 years later and decided that this must have been the
origin of "Murphy's Law". This of course would be a (presumably) false
etymology. Memories are notoriously fallible, too.

Murphy the fictitious bumbling navy mechanic may have appeared in a series
of cartoons throughout the 1950's, and can't be excluded as a candidate for
a true etymology without further data. However it is perhaps just as
believable that the character was named after the "law".

I speculate that there may not have been any pertinent Murphy at all. I
note that "Murphy's Law" occurs in various forms, and is indistinguishable
from "Finagle's Law", "Spode's Law", "Sod's Law", "Reilly's Law" -- these
just the names which I've encountered as equivalents or near-equivalents.
The name was perhaps just assigned "at random" to make a joke on the model
of (e.g.) Ohm's Law. Do the Popik/Cohen researches offer any refutation of
this "null hypothesis"?

-- Doug Wilson

More information about the Ads-l mailing list