Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Nov 8 16:33:26 UTC 2019

Stephen Goranson, Bill Mullins, and I have done a lot of work demonstrating that the popular story of the origins of "Murphy's Law" is apocryphal.  This is true both with respect to the name "Murphy's Law" and with respect to the proverb without the name.  The "Murphy's Law proverb" is "anything that can go wrong will" or "if something can go wrong, it will" or "anything that can possibly go wrong will" or "if something can possibly go wrong it will."

Goranson, Mullins, and I have found examples of the proverb without the name as far back as 1862, but these examples are all comments on particular areas of human experience such as business law or nautical activities or magic performances.  I have now found what seems to be the oldest known citation for the Murphy's Law proverb as a universal principle.

In the British periodical Country Life, April 6, 1929 (found on the ProQuest database), there appeared an article entitled "Waking-Up the Boat Engine."  On page xlviii I find the following: "For my own part, I always have the water pump overhauled before making any attempt to start the engine, assuming with cautious pessimism that what can go wrong will do so … "  This could be interpreted as a specific assertion about boat engines, but I think it more likely that it was intended as a general maxim.

Fred Shapiro
YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

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

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