interim comment on "Murphy's Law" antedating 1943

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Thu Oct 8 11:30:56 UTC 2009

As you recall, I posted what is published as a March 26, 1943 letter (sent by a
U.S. military engineer from New Hebrides, South Pacific to his parents in
Chicago) containing the term "Murphy's law."

That claim received two objections, one of them substantial.

I later posted, with caution ("_If_"), based on google snippets of a
"contemporaneous diary" from 1944-1945. I requested both books, and I have the
latter. In all three cases in the second book, "Murphy's law" appears in
"commentary" on the diaries. So that second book is irrelevant; perhaps I
posted that prematurely.

On the other hand, the 1943 letter is available in "limited" view and, so far,
to me, nothing in the book of letters looks anachronistic or rewritten. Thanks
for offlist comments. If anyone has contacted the author, please let me know on
or off list. My plan is to read the whole book before attempting to contact him.
I did check the Purdue U. library to see if they have Wm. O. Sabel's papers;
apparently not. (It's published by Purdue U. Press and the copyright is to
Purdue Research Foundation, which might could suggest scholarly approval of the

For what it's worth, I consider the letter more likely genuine than at
least two others. Perhaps we can agree that when Howard Percy "Bob" Robertson
used the term in early 1949, as I wrote, he did not claim to be the originator
and also said that he "always liked" it, suggesting it was coined earlier than
1949. 1943 is not an implausible jump. The term, on current evidence, was not
in wide circulation until sometime after 1949. Robertson, as noted earlier,
like some other U.S. physicists, did very extensive work during WWII for the
military. Any new evidence welcome.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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