Monthly Archives: March 2011

Taking the Mick Out of Murphy’s Law


In 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base, a team of military engineers were studying the effects on the human body, of “sudden deceleration,” using a speed sled on rails & brave volunteers. The lead researcher, Capt. Edward A. Murphy, annoyed with the imprecision of one of his technical assistants, remarked that if a device could be fitted incorrectly, this clown would do it. Later, Dr. John Paul Stapp, who survived a 40-G [sic] deceleration in the sled, told reporters that, “the good safety record on the project was due to a firm belief in Murphy’s Law.”

So, how did the 20th Century dissing of one schlemiel in the California desert morph into the pessimistic worldview now implied by the idiom, “It’s Murphy’s Law, isn’t it?” uttered whenever [as the 18th Century Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote] “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”?

Well, as long as we’ve wandered back to the British Isles, let’s consider the far older [but unattributed] expression, “It’s sod’s law, innit?” In post-1950s dictionaries [both British & American] the two phrases are listed as interchangeable. But dey’re not really, are dey now? Cuz your British lexicographer was until recently reluctant to codify pejorative references to the Irish, even referring to a certain AKC breed of dog as a “red setter,” lest offense [and, presumably, reprisals] be taken. [Compare this to the linguistically insouciant Yanks, who t’row scores of Hooligans into Paddywagons every March 17th, for da love o’ Mike!] Mind you, there also are no “German Shepherds” in the UK; there are instead “Alsatians,” n’est-ce pas? [“Don’t mention the War!”]

Cultural nuances aside, though, there are important locus-of-control differences in the lessons to be drawn, between Sod’s and Murphy’s Laws. The former posits “a perversely malignant universe,” in which “dropped toast always lands buttered-side-down,” and bad things happen to good people. It is essentially Nihilistic. Murphy’s Law, on the other hand, suggests the adoption of a “belt & suspenders [or braces, as the Brits would have it]” approach to human endeavors. There may be no such thing as a “fail-safe” plan; so there should be at least one back-up plan. Written down & rehearsed [since, once the limbic system is lit up, hippocampus-mediated problem-solving will go off-line.] Yeah, sure, that plan might not work, either. Score one for the Nihilists. But, then again, it just might. Worth a try, yeah?

For Lent, I’m trying to give up seeing the world in Sod’s Law terms. I still believe in Murphy’s Law, of course. I know, for instance, that at the end of an hour-long, free-range adventure in the woods, Lili will still feel the need to “leave a message” for her canine correspondents on the lawn of the public schoolyard. Never let the other guy have the last “word,” is her motto. Luckily, though, this time she was “only taking the Mick” [Google it]; and no deployment of a New York Times blue plastic bag was necessary. [But I always carry at least one in my pocket, pace Capt. Murphy.]

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Filed under limbic system, locus of control, semiotics

"Just looking for some touch."


That’s a canny wee lad, yon man fro’ Nazareth. Meaning, of course, Dan McCafferty, the legendary frontman of that Scottish rock band which took its name from the first line of the song “The Weight” by that Canadian rock band, The Band: “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout halfpast dead.” D’ye ken? [By which they (The Band) meant, of course, the little town in the LeHigh Valley of Pennsylvania, not far from the towns of Emmaus and Bethlehem.] Dearie me! How Metalingual this post is turning out to be!

What the brilliant Mr. McCafferty did, while singing his live cover of the ZZ Top song, “Tush,” was to replace that arcane and confusing word [Dusty Hill pronounces it to rhyme with “hush”; yet he seems to be “looking for” the shortened form of the Yiddish word “tochus,” which rhymes with “push.”] with the universally understood and desired, by man, woman, and beast, “touch.” Download the lyrics from Hair of the Dog, Live to see what I mean.

Now, let us segue back to 14th Century France and the [slyly political] poem by Gervais du Bus, Roman de Fauvel, in which all the rich but not-so-powerful people seek to ingratiate themselves with a self-important brown horse [in some translations, a donkey] named “Fauvel,” by stroking [currying] his coat. Thus, in France, a “curryfavel” came to mean a flatterer. By 1530, the idiom had crossed the Channel, cut loose the brown horse part of the metaphor, and become the compound verb, “to curry favour.” They have disagreed about much, but both the French and English have long known that the way to gain favour with a horse is to stroke its fur in the direction in which it lies flat [from the Old French correire, “to put in order”].

Conversely, the idiom, “to rub (a person or animal) up the wrong way” means “to be annoying.”

Still, why all the idiomatic hostility towards currying? Why is it considered a duplicitous thing to do? Perhaps because [look it up, skeptics] stroking a mammal’s fur (hair) produces oxytocin [Get this!] in both parties: the groomed and the groomer. This, theoretically, fosters trust, which [if the “groomer” is a sexual predator and the “groomed” is a vulnerable individual] is not only manipulative, it’s against the law [in many places].

With that caveat, now you know how to get “that warm, fuzzy feeling,” without ordering dodgy nasal sprays claiming to contain oxytocin [“the love hormone”] online. Pet your pet. Brush the hair of the dog. Curry a brown horse. [Here are Dusk the mare & our younger daughter, when she was just a canny wee lass.] Or [with their permission] stroke or brush the hair of someone who is already in your circle of trust. Pace the Broadway musical Hair, this is unlikely to bring about World Peace; but it may strengthen the impulse to “tend and defend” those within your own reference group.

Remember, “we’re all looking for some touch,” but not from a stranger on the subway.

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, reference group