[Ads-l] Earliest Known Example of Specialized "Murphy's Law"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Jan 1 12:55:44 UTC 2016

In an era dominated by ISIS and Donald Trump, the proverb known as "Murphy's Law" has never seemed more relevant and more descriptive of reality.  It is appropriate to usher in the New Year with a discovery of what I believe to be the earliest known example of a specialized version of Murphy's Law.

Murphy's Law, of course, is the proverb usually stated as "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."  There are four different ways to analyze the "first use" of the Law.

(A) The general idea of Murphy's Law.

This is too vague to be discussed definitively.  One contender for the earliest known expression of the general idea is:

"Things which you do not hope happen more frequently than things which you do hope."
Plautus, Mostellaria (ca. 200 B.C.)

(B) The Murphy's Law proverb applied to a specific area of human experience.  I believe the earliest known example has been the following, discovered by Stephen Goranson:

"It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later."
Alfred Holt, "Review of the Progress of Steam Shipping During the Last Quarter of a Century," Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1877/78)

(C) The Murphy's Law proverb applied universally.  The following example, discovered by Bill Mullin, has a specialized context but is accompanied by additional remarks that tie it to universal principles:

"It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains."
Nevil Maskelyne, "The Art in Magic," The Magic Circular, June 1908

(D) The Murphy's Law proverb named as "Murphy's Law."  The earliest known example was found by Stephen Goranson, following up on a related discovery by me:

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murphy%27s_law#cite_note-5>"He realized that this was the inexorable working of the second law of the thermodynamics which stated Murphy's law 'If anything can go wrong it will.'"
Anne Roe, "A Psychological Study of Physical Scientists," Genetic Psychology Monographs: Child Behavior, Animal Behavior, and Comparative Psychology, May 1951 [Goranson has demonstrated that Roe was reporting an interview apparently conducted in 1949]

I can now present an earlier occurrence of (B), found through searches of Google Books and Economist Historical Archive:

"The lawyer does not see the whole of mercantile life.  He sees only the failures.  There is a 'hitch,' as he calls it, in every case which comes before him.  _His_ instinct, therefore, is that business as a rule fails, -- that what can go wrong will go wrong, -- that every opening for fraud will be filled with fraud, -- that a merely moral obligation is, as Lord Wensleydale concisely observed, 'nothing,' -- that all who can cheat will cheat, and all who do not cheat cannot cheat."
"Law Versus Commerce," The Economist, Mar. 22, 1862, p. 312

Fred Shapiro
YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list