“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is commonly known as Murphy’s Law. The fact that Murphy was actually an aero-space engineer, who worked on safety-critical systems, may be cause for some concern.
Major Edward Aloysius Murphy’s original statement was apparently along the lines “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.” Reputedly, another of Murphy’s favourite sayings was “If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will.”
The phrases were apparently simplified by a colleague, Major John Paul Stapp, to the more common wording used above.
The phrase has become a part of the vernacular right around the world, not just in English, but in many languages in many countries. There have also been a great many variants on the theme, including:
– Everything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong (Lloyd Mallan, in his book Men, Rockets and Space Rats, 1955, quoting Major Paul Stapp’s favourite takeoff on scientific laws). This is probably the earliest printed use of Murphy’s name in connection with the law.
– Anything that can, could have, or will go wrong, is going wrong, all at once (Murphy’s Quantum Law)
– Anything that can go wrong already has, you’re just not aware of it yet (Elson’s Law)
– If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe or pregnancy, then someone will do it (from The Jargon File glossary of hacker slang)
– Anything that can go wrong, will – at the worst possible moment (Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives, a corollary to Murphy’s Law, used in editorials by John W. Campbell Jr from the 1940s to the 1960s)
– If anything just cannot go wrong, it will anyway
– Just when you think things cannot get any worse, they will
– Make something idiot-proof, and they will build a better idiot
– Murphy was an optimist (Smith’s Law)
Murphy himself was reportedly unhappy with the commonplace interpretation of his law. He regarded the law as crystallising a key principle of defensive design, in which one should always assume worst-case scenarios. He regarded the many jocular versions of the law as “ridiculous, trivial and erroneous”.
His unsuccessful attempts to have the law taken more seriously thus made him a victim of his own law.