interim comment on "Murphy's Law" antedating 1943

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Oct 8 13:49:58 UTC 2009

Sabel's usage seems suspect to me:

"I keep thinking about what equipment I will need in the morning and what
this squad and that squad will have to do. I feel if I am not personally
watching every move the men make, something will go wrong and it usually
does - Murphy's Law."

The passage appears in a a letter from Sabel to his mother. If the phrase
was really a novel expression in 1943, I can hardly picture Sabel writing it
without either quotation marks or some explanation of its presumed origin,
its currency, etc.  The letter seems to imply that Mrs. Sabel is already
familiar with the term.  But that would suggest significant civilian
currency 25 years before we have any other evidence of it.

As usual, this opinion is mere conjecture: Sabel might have mentioned the
term at an earlier time, etc., etc., etc.
I for one am anxious to get to the truth of the matter - if it's still

Good luck to SG!


On Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 7:30 AM, Stephen Goranson <goranson at> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
> Subject:      interim comment on "Murphy's Law" antedating 1943
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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
> edition.)
> 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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