Murphy's Law - Meaning & Origin Of The Phrase (2024)

Murphy’s Law parallels two other common terms for what is essentially the same pessimistic idea – Sod’s Law and Finagle’s Law. Of these three, Murphy’s Law is by far the more commonly used. The notion that ‘if anything can go wrong, it will’ is the simplest version of a notion that has been expressed in numerous ways. Many of these pre-date ‘Murphy’:

– Once a job is botched, any attempts to fix it make it worse.
Bread always falls buttered side down.
– Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way.

The list of names for the supposed phenomenon is also arbitrarily long and, as well as the above ‘laws’, includes: The Fourth Law of ThermodynamicsNewton’s Fourth Law of MotionThe Inverse Midas Touch, etc, etc.

In the use of Murphy, Sod and Finagle and also the less common Reilly’s Law, the coiners of these names seem to have settled on a theme which calls on perceived negative allusions to the Irish. There is, in fact, nothing to link any of those names to anyone Irish, but they certainly sound as though there could be.

In reality, Murphy is commonly thought to be Captain Edward A. Murphy, an American aerospace engineer, who performed studies on deceleration for the U.S. Air Force in 1949. During the experiments, in which he had a less than cordial relationship with other members of the research team, he noted that if things could be done wrongly, they would be. In subsequent interviews, various team members have stated that they referred to the notion as ‘Murphy’s Law’. The expression wasn’t put into print by them at the time though and the earliest citation of it is in Anne Roe’s book The Making of a Scientist,1952:

“There were a number of particularly delightful incidents. There is, forexample, the physicist who introduced me to one of my favorite ‘laws,’ whichhe described as ‘Murphy’s law or the fourth law of thermodynamics’ (actuallythere were only three last I heard) which states: ‘If anything can go wrongit will.'”

Other sources have questioned that the Murphy in the name was an actual person. In his memoire Into Orbit, 1962, John Glenn states that:

“We blamed human errors like this on what aviation engineers call ‘Murphy’s Law’. ‘Murphy’ was a fictitious character who appeared in a series of educational cartoons put out by the U.S. Navy… Murphy was a careless, all-thumbs mechanic who was prone to make such mistakes as installing a propeller backwards.”

The case for Edward A. Murphy being the source is fairly strong, but perhaps not quite ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’.

Sod and Finagle certainly weren’t real people. Sod’s Law isn’t known until later and the first example of it that I can find is from The New Statesman, October 1970:

“Sod’s Law… is the force in nature which causes it to rain mostly at weekends, which makes you get flu when you are on holiday, and which makes the phone ring just as you’ve got into the bath.”

This is a stronger variant of Murphy’s Law, using the expletive ‘sod’ for accentuation. The term is, of course, short for ‘sodomite’, although the word had weakened into a general non-sexual term of abuse by 1970 – along the same lines of ‘bugger’.

Finagle’s Law follows a similar pattern. Finagle has been used in the USA, as a verb meaning ‘to obtain a result by trickery; to deceive; to wangle’. A finagler is recorded in the American Dialect Society’s Dialect Notes, 1922 as:

“One who stalls until someone else pays the check”

Soon afterwards (1926), Harold Wentworth listed it in the American Dialect Dictionary as ‘US political cant.

The term probably had its origin in England. The English Dialect Dictionary lists the words fainaigue and feneague – meaning ‘to cheat’.

The first example I have of ‘Finagle’s Law’ in print dates from The Indiana Gazette, April 1979, although there are assertions that it dates from the 1940s. There’s some evidence to show that Finagle’s Law, while no doubt having been influenced by Murphy’s Law, is not merely the same notion under another name. Finagle’s Law is more often applied specifically as a spoof version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and is stated as ‘The perversity of the Universe tends towards a maximum‘. This pseudo-science background also applies to ‘Finagle’s Constant‘ – a mythical mathematical constant which is added to one side of an equation to obtain a result when the facts don’t match the theory.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Murphy's Law - Meaning & Origin Of The Phrase (2024)


Murphy's Law - Meaning & Origin Of The Phrase? ›

The Air Force was testing high-speed jets and Captain Murphy once complained about one of the technicians serving under him on the project, saying “If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll find it.” Soon, people on the base were referring to things going wrong as Murphy's Law.

Where did the expression "Murphy's law" come from? ›

Ed Murphy, a development engineer from Wright Field Aircraft Lab. Frustration with a strap transducer which was malfunctioning due to an error in wiring the strain gage bridges caused him to remark – "If there is any way to do it wrong, he will" – referring to the technician who had wired the bridges at the Lab.

What is Murphy's law slang for? ›

Murphy's Law is the idea that if something can go wrong, it will.

What is the actual quote of Murphy's law? ›

Murphy's general laws

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong.

Who was Murphy in Murphy's law? ›

Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr.

(January 11, 1918 – July 17, 1990) was an American aerospace engineer who worked on safety-critical systems. He is best known for his namesake "Murphy's law", which is said to be "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong".

What is an example of Murphy's law in real life? ›

"You never find a lost article until you replace it." Whether it's a missing report, a set of keys, or a sweater, you can expect to find it right after you replace it, according to this variation of Murphy's Law.

What is the scientific explanation of Murphy's law? ›

MURPHY'S Law is one way of stating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law is based on the observation that, left to themselves, systems tend to become more disordered. The Third Law of Thermodynamics indicates that perfect order is practically impossible.

What is the opposite of Murphy's law? ›

Yhprum's law is the opposite of Murphy's law. The simple formula of Yhprum's law is: "Everything that can work, will work." "Yhprum" is "Murphy", spelled backwards.

What is a synonym for Murphys law? ›

Definitions of Murphy's Law. noun. humorous axiom stating that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. synonyms: Sod's Law.

Is Murphy's law good or bad? ›

It depends on how you are going to use Murphy's law in your daily life situations. The outcome can be either positive or negative but it all depends on your point of view, thoughts and efforts. So, it is better to use Murphy's law when you are taking some major decisions in your life.

What is Murphy's law also known as? ›

The law is universally defined as – if something could go wrong it will go wrong. It is thought that sod's law was the UK name passed down through word of mouth through generations. But the law first appeared in print under the name Murphy's law.

What is the Murphy's law in psychology? ›

Murphy's Law, or the idea that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, is a common social-perceptual bias. In everyday life, assuming worst-case scenarios has both benefits and costs. From an evolutionary perspective, assuming the worst may well actually be quite adaptive.

Can you avoid Murphy's law? ›

Undoubtedly, there will always be something subject to “Murphy's Law”—no matter how well you prepare. But minimizing that potential is possible when paying careful attention to the steps that those who have gone before you have taken.

What is the real meaning of Murphy's law? ›

: an observation: anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

What is the Murphy's Law in the military? ›

Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you. Never share a foxhole with anyone braver than yourself. If the platoon sergeant can see you, so can the enemy. Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down, never stay awake when you can sleep.

Is Murphy's law pessimistic? ›

Most people have heard of Murphy's Law. But most people, when they're referring to Murphy's Law, are actually referring to the rather pessimistic Finagle's Law, which is "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Murphy's Law is quite different, and is actually a message of hope.

Why is it called sod's law? ›

The phrase seems to derive, at least in part, from the colloquialism an "unlucky sod"; a term for someone who has had some bad (unlucky) experience, and is usually used as a sympathetic reference to the person.

Is Murphy's law an Irish saying? ›

Well we all know about good old Murphy's Law! That is that when if anything can go wrong it will go wrong! This truly Irish take on life plus a host of other well known Irish sayings are here on this wonderfully Irish metal sign.

Where did the name Kidlin's law come from? ›

Kidlin's law is a basic problem-solving principle that inherited its name from a fictional character in a novel by James Clavell. It states, “If you write the problem down clearly, then the matter is half solved.”

What is the difference between Murphy's law and Sod's law? ›

Some people think the two are the same. They are actually different, and spring from quite different ways of looking at the world. Murphy's law is the simpler, and can be put directly into words: “If it can go wrong, it will.” Sod's law is more complex, and is best defined by examples. You care about your garden.

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