From Murphy’s Law to Catch-22: the men behind the aphorisms
If there’s one thing we can say about men, it’s that they love to make laws. I’m not referring to the laws that get royal assent; these laws are common aphorisms that have entered into everyday parlance. More often than not, when we use these phrases, we understand what the law metaphorically represents, but not the etymology – the man who coined it eponymously.
And we are talking about men here – in my research, the overwhelming majority of these laws were named after the man that first came up with the revelation, or first popularised it. Some are genuinely scientific in nature but others are just male epiphanies: personal observations inflated into universal truths. The phrases borrow from the legislative vernacular but many aren’t uniformly accepted or incontrovertible. It appears to be male bluster and bravado: general rules of thumb posing as authoritative statements. And to cap the braggadocio, he almost always names the rule after himself.
Who are then men behind these laws?
Many non-legislative laws derive from Murphy’s Law, which states that ‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’. Pinpointing who first coined it has been elusive, with some accounts disputed.
The most common is that it was named after Edward A. Murphy, an engineer investigating how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash in 1948. One story goes, Murphy found an incorrectly wired device, cursed the technician responsible and remarked: “If there’s any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.” His colleague collected ‘laws’ like this and added this one to his list. Another version claims that Murphy coined it to reflect his frustration when his own devices failed to perform.
It’s suggested that it entered into popular vernacular in a press conference given by Dr John Stapp, saying he used Murphy’s Law in rocket sled tests to ensure his team were prepared for every single potential failure. In that sense, the law has two different meanings: one bemoaning the likelihood of failure; the other preparing thoroughly for it.
This is back slang: Murphy’s Law spelt backwards. It too has two derivations. ‘Everything that can work, will work’ is the straight-up reversal of Murphy’s Law. A more nuanced version states that ‘systems that shouldn’t work, sometimes work nevertheless’.
Mrs Murphy’s Law
States that ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong while Murphy is out of town’. Yep, the one law named after a woman defines her solely through her husband, and portrays her as utterly helpless in his absence.
This is my favourite, introduced to me by my Guardian editor. A deliberate misspelling, it states: ‘If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.’ At The Guardian, Muphry’s Law occasionally plagued us in the ‘Mind your language‘ column, which I wrote for regularly, as a hypocritical fault when we wrote about language and grammar abuse. The commenters delighted in such ironic inaccuracies.
Coined by management consultant and author Peter Drucker, this is the melodramatic extension of Murphy’s Law stating that ‘if one thing goes wrong, everything else will, and at the same time’. He was referring to the complexity of management in organisations, but it’s another version of ‘it never rains but it pours’.
The law generally states ‘if anything can go wrong, it will’ and in British English the law states that this’ll happen at the worst possible time. Some call it the “British version of Murphy’s Law.” It’s a play on God’s Law, coming from the Bible’s Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities that have become synonymous with sin and perceived wrongdoing.
A humorous essay in The Economist gave birth to this law which dictates that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. It’s named after British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who wrote the 1955 essay as a satire on civil service bureaucracy and staff inflation.
This one comes from a book by author Joseph Heller and is defined as ‘a paradoxical situation in which an action has consequences which make it impossible to pursue that action’. Inspired by the same absurdity as Parkinson’s Law, it’s written as a critique of ludicrous bureaucracy – this time in World War II, when pilots claiming insanity to evade potential death on missions were deemed sane automatically by making the request.
Stigler’s law of eponymy
When reading any of the above, you should take into account Stigler’s Law, which pronounces that ‘no [scientific] discovery is named after its original discoverer’ – the idea being that the best public relations communicator tends to get the eponymous glory for bringing a rare idea into mainstream. Often theories are given official names long after their original discovery – giving us a skewed and inaccurate vernacular on catch-phrase laws.
Do you know any catch-phrase laws named after women? Or can you think of social phenomena that you’d like to name after a woman? I’d love to hear from you. If ever there’s a way of reclaiming women’s space in language, I’ll champion it. But, for obvious reasons, I’m definitely not calling that Gary’s Law.