Murphy’s Law

Gosh, I thought that was the motto of the U.S. Postal Service.

Dear WD: I think that almost everyone knows Murphy’s Law (“If something can go wrong, it will”), so much so that it has spawned seemingly endless variations. But who was Murphy and how did this hapless soul get his name enshrined in our collective consciousness?

And speaking of poor Murphy, a while ago my wife and I had a disagreement over two quite opposing uses of an expression. I referred to the “luck of the Irish” as a completely positive thing. She informed me that it referred to luck that initially appears good but which ironically turns bad. Who wins the kewpie doll? — Paul Mailman.

As the luck of language columnists dictates, it seems that no one knows exactly who, if anyone, the Murphy of “Murphy’s Law” was, although the “law” seems to have been discovered during or just after World War Two. According to the autobiographical book “Into Orbit” by former pilot and astronaut (not to mention Senator) John Glenn, “‘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.” Senator Glenn’s recollection has not been verified, however, and it’s equally possible that whoever actually dreamt up the pessimistic “Murphy’s Law” simply picked the common name “Murphy” out of thin air.

Regarding “luck of the Irish,” I think you win this one, but your wife is justified in her presumption that it would actually signify bad luck. “Luck of the Irish” may, in fact, be the only common English phrase mentioning the Irish that doesn’t have an overtly negative connotation. The Irish have been notable victims of mocking slang in England since at least the 17th century, including such classic slurs as “Irish confetti” (bricks), “Irish testimony” (perjury) and “Irish buggy” (a wheelbarrow).

2 comments on this post.
  1. Vincent:

    Hi WD

    Firstly, my sincere congratulations on a fine site and fantastic resources. I visit here a few times a year but this would be my first reply.

    “Luck of the Irish” or “Irish Luck”, when used in the personal sense, is actually BAD luck or could be used in a derogatory statement. (…almost comparable to “dumb luck”)

    There’s a John Lennon song that includes the lyrics.. “Don’t wish for the luck of the Irish, You’ll wish you was English instead.” (sic) (ref: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNwqV_HpMSE )

    It’s not one of my favorite songs but I do love Lennon.

    Have a happy 2012

    Kindest regards,
    Vincent

  2. Rand Noel:

    The Irish aren’t the only ones who have the similar good means bad idionms. “May you live in interesting times” that is supposed to be an ancient Chinese curse. Supposedly meaning, May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life. is not a curse it’s not Chinese either. Check out “1936 is provided by a memoir written by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen” for further info rgearding this (If you haven’t already)

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