- Rhymes: -eɪɡəl
(transitive) to obtain or achieve by indirect, usually deceitful methods
- Hungarian: becsap, rászed
(intransitive) to cheat; swindle; use crafty, deceitful methods (often with "out of")
- Hungarian: csal
Murphy's law is an adage in Western culture that broadly states that if anything can go wrong, it will. "If there's more than one possible outcome of a job or task, and one of those outcomes will result in disaster or an undesirable consequence, then somebody will do it that way." It is most often cited as "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" (or, alternately, "Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way"). The saying is sometimes referred to as Sod's law or Finagle's law.
HistoryThe perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy's law are not hard to find. For example, an American newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio printed this verse in 1841:
I never had a slice of bread, Particularly large and wide, That did not fall upon the floor, And always on the buttered side.
Recent research in this area has been carried on to a significant extent by members of the American Dialect Society. ADS member Stephen Goranson has found a version of the law, not yet generalized or bearing that name, in a report by Alfred Holt at an 1877 meeting of an engineering society:
It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific.... Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity. The human factor cannot be safely neglected in planning machinery. If attention is to be obtained, the engine must be such that the engineer will be disposed to attend to it.
American Dialect Society member Bill Mullins has found a slightly broader version of the aphorism in reference to stage magic. The British stage magician Nevil Maskelyne wrote in 1908:
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.
Murphy's law emerged in its modern form no later than 1952, as an epigraph to a mountaineering book by Jack Sack, who described it as an "ancient mountaineering adage":
Anything that can possibly go wrong, does.
Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro has shown that it was also in 1952 that the adage first was called "Murphy's law", in a book by Anne Roe, quoting an unnamed physicist:
There were a number of particularly delightful incidents. There is, for example, the physicist who introduced me to one of my favorite "laws", which he described as "Murphy's law or the fourth law of thermodynamics" (actually there were only three last I heard) which states: "If anything can go wrong it will".
The name "Murphy's law" was not immediately secure. A story by Lee Correy in the February 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction referred to "Reilly's Law", which it said "states that in any scientific or engineering endeavor, anything that can go wrong will go wrong". Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss was quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 12, 1955, saying "I hope it will be known as Strauss' law. It could be stated about like this: If anything bad can happen, it probably will".
Association with MurphyAccording to the book A History of Murphy's Law by author Nick T. Spark, differing recollections years later by various participants make it impossible to pinpoint who first coined the saying Murphy's law. The law's name supposedly stems from an attempt to use new measurement devices developed by the eponymous Edward Murphy. The phrase was coined in adverse reaction to something Murphy said when his devices failed to perform and was eventually cast into its present form prior to a press conference some months later—the first ever (of many) conferences given by Colonel Stapp. These conflicts (a long running interpersonal feud) were unreported until Spark researched the matter. His book expands upon and documents an original four part article published in 2003 (Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)) on the controversy: Why Everything You Know About Murphy's Law is Wrong. From 1948 to 1949, a project known as MX981 took place on Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base) for the purpose of testing the human tolerance for g-forces during rapid deceleration. The tests used a rocket sled mounted on a railroad track with a series of hydraulic brakes at the end.
Initial tests used a humanoid crash test dummy strapped to a seat on the sled, but subsequent tests were performed by medical doctor John Paul Stapp, at that time an Air Force captain. During the tests, questions were raised about the accuracy of the instrumentation used to measure the g-forces Captain Stapp was experiencing. Edward Murphy proposed using electronic strain gauges attached to the restraining clamps of Stapp's harness to measure the force exerted on them by his rapid deceleration. Murphy was engaged in supporting similar research using high speed centrifuges to generate g-forces. Murphy's assistant wired the harness, and a trial was run using a chimpanzee.
The sensors provided a zero reading, however; it became apparent that they had been installed incorrectly, with each sensor wired backwards. It was at this point that a disgusted Murphy made his pronouncement, despite being offered the time and chance to calibrate and test the sensor installation prior to the test proper, which he declined somewhat irritably, getting off on the wrong foot with the MX981 team. In an interview conducted by Nick Spark, George Nichols, another engineer who was present, stated that Murphy blamed the failure on his assistant after the failed test, saying, "If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will." Nichols' account is that "Murphy's law" came about through conversation among the other members of the team; it was condensed to "If it can happen, it will happen," and named for Murphy in mockery of what Nichols perceived as arrogance on Murphy's part. Another account credits Stapp with espousing it shortly afterwards during a press conference. Others, including Edward Murphy's surviving son Robert Murphy, deny Nichols' account (which is supported by Hill, both interviewed by Spark), and claim that the phrase did originate with Edward Murphy. According to Robert Murphy's account, his father's statement was along the lines of "If there's more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way." Other documents indicate that Robert A. Murphy himself changed his story several times on several different occasions, including on a lengthy radio station interview which survives.
The phrase first received public attention during a press conference in which Stapp was asked how it was that nobody had been severely injured during the rocket sled tests. Stapp replied that it was because they always took Murphy's Law under consideration; he then summarized the law and said that in general, it meant that it was important to consider all the possibilities (possible things that could go wrong) before doing a test and act to counteract them. Thus Stapp's usage and Murphy's alleged usage are very different in outlook and attitude. One is sour, the other an affirmation of the predictable being able to be surmounted, usually by sufficient planning and redundancy. Hill and Nichols believe Murphy was unwilling to take the responsibility for the device's initial failure (by itself a blip of no large significance) and is to be doubly-damned for not allowing the MX981 team time to validate the sensor's operability and for trying to blame an underling when doing so in the embarrassing aftermath.
The association with the 1948 incident is by no means secure. Despite extensive research, no trace of documentation of the saying as Murphy's law has been found before 1952 (see above). The next citations are not found until 1955, when the May - June issue of Aviation Mechanics Bulletin included the line "Murphy's Law: If an aircraft part can be installed incorrectly, someone will install it that way," and Lloyd Mallan's book, Men, Rockets and Space Rats, referred to: "Colonel Stapp's favorite takeoff on sober scientific laws—Murphy's Law, Stapp calls it—'Everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong'." The Mercury astronauts in 1962 attributed Murphy's law to U.S. Navy training films.
- Hoare's Law of Large Problems: Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out.
- O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law: Murphy was an optimist.
- Dirac's Corollary of Murphy's Law: The speaker who knows least speaks longest.
- A History of Murphy's Law
- The Official Rules
- — Why toasted bread lands buttered-side-down
- The Annals of Improbable Research tracks down the origins of Murphy's law
- Murphy's Laws Origin
- The House of Murphy — a website on Murphy's Law
- Mathematical formula for Murphy's Law
- Examples of the mathematical formula for Murphy's Law
- 1952 proverb citation
- 1955 term citation of phrase "Murphy's Law"
- Reference to 1941 citation of the proverb
- Murphy's Law entry in the Jargon File
- Murphy's Law was Born Here
- A collection of humorous Murphy's Laws
- Murphy's Law of Combat
finagle in Arabic: قانون مورفي
finagle in Bulgarian: Закон на Мърфи
finagle in Danish: Murphy's lov
finagle in German: Murphys Gesetz
finagle in Spanish: Ley de Murphy
finagle in Esperanto: Leĝo de Murphy
finagle in Persian: قوانین مورفی
finagle in French: Loi de Murphy
finagle in Korean: 머피의 법칙
finagle in Indonesian: Hukum Murphy
finagle in Icelandic: Lögmál Murphys
finagle in Italian: Legge di Murphy
finagle in Hebrew: חוק מרפי
finagle in Dutch: Wet van Murphy
finagle in Japanese: マーフィーの法則
finagle in Norwegian: Murphys lov
finagle in Norwegian Nynorsk: Murphys lov
finagle in Polish: Prawa Murphy'ego
finagle in Portuguese: Lei de Murphy
finagle in Russian: Закон Мерфи
finagle in Slovenian: Murphyjevi zakoni
finagle in Serbian: Марфијев закон
finagle in Finnish: Murphyn laki
finagle in Swedish: Murphys lag
finagle in Turkish: Murphy Kanunları
finagle in Ukrainian: Закон Мерфі
finagle in Chinese: 摩菲定理
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