ENGLISCH/942: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (206) - Murphy's law (SB)

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

Thank you very much for your letter and the good suggestions for a better pronunciation. That gives me the courage to ask you one more question, which I ask myself while reading your letter. You mentioned a certain Murphy. What role does he play in mispronouncing words? You said literally: "and of course, thanks to Murphy, they (the words) always get in our way when we want to show ourselves from our best side."

I suspect that you are not referring to a person, but to an idiom I do not yet know?

Peter K. (Munich, Germany)


Dear Mr K.

You're right about that. The term "Thank's to Murphy" I used, is actually a shortened version of "Thank's to Murphy's Law". This is a relatively popular term in colloquial American English and, so to speak, sloshed across the pond to us. So it is also becoming more and more popular in Great Britain. But what does it mean?

Murphy's law is neither a law of nature, nor a physical law, nor one that would be in any legal code. Murphy's law dates back to an engineer, Captain Edward A. Murphy, who participated in the US Air Force program on a California test site in 1949. The aim of the test was to find out which accelerations the human body can withstand. During an expensive experiment, sixteen measurement sensors were attached to the subject's body. The sensors could only be mounted in two ways: In the right position and in a wrong one that deviated 90° from it. The experiment failed because someone had connected all the sensors incorrectly. This experience made Murphy to formulate his law. The original version was: "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."

This is of course a little too much to remember. So, the simple way to explain it today is, that Murphy's Law is a pessimistic view of life that states "whatever can go wrong will go wrong." If there's a chance something bad might happen and there are two ways, the worse will always happen. When you have a buttered toast and it falls to the ground, it will fall down with the butter side down to the carpet, according to Murphy's law.

To show you another example of how we use the phrase in conversation, lets have a look at the following dialogue two friends are having:

Ben: How did your date go last night?
Tom: Oh man, it was a complete disaster!
Ben: Why? What happened?
Tom: Everything happened! First I splattered tomato sauce on my shirt right before leaving. Then I got a speeding ticket on the way to her place, so I got there late. And then, after picking her up we ran out of gas on the way to the cinema!
Ben: Sounds like you were struck by Murphy's Law!

So, in this dialogue Ben is sympathising with Tom a little. Tom had a lot of problems on his date last night. Nothing went well. He got his shirt dirty and his girlfriend wasn't impressed with him. Anyway, in this case Ben sympathises by saying "sounds like you were struck by Murphy's Law" because it seemed here that everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

So, that's how we use Murphy's Law. By writing "thanks to Murphy", I wanted to point out that whenever you want to impress someone like Tom, or show yourself from your best side, you can get to know Murphy's law. Hopefully this explanation helped you to understand how it is used a bit better. May it never gets in your way.

Miranda Gobbledygook

25. August 2018

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