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

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