Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Murphy's/Sod's Law

When I moved to South Africa in the 90s, I found that my American pronunciation of battery would not do when trying to buy batteries in shops. I learned to say, and somehow still say [bætri] instead of my flap-infested, three-syllable American version. Now I live in a place where the word has three syllables but no flap, yet I somehow made myself clear enough to succeed in buying a £7 battery for my watch on Saturday. Three days later, I hear a chink on the ground and it's my watch, which has irreparably broken in the place where the band is held to the watchy bit.

This is an illustration of Sod's law, which is the same law that Americans call Murphy's law ('anything that can go wrong will', etc.). The American name is older, having its origins in the first-half of the 20th century in the US military. (Stories of who the original Murphy was are best treated as apocryphal.) Sod's law came about in the 1970s, and is far more common on these shores than Murphy's law, which is nevertheless usually understood. It probably replaced Murphy's law because of the delicacy of Anglo-Irish relations. (Most Americans would claim that Murphy's law is not an anti-Irish gibe--but if your name is Murphy and you look Irish, you might have a different experience of this.)

Sod is short for sodomite and in this context is probably a play on God's law. It's commonly heard in poor sod--i.e., 'poor bastard' or in many of the places where a stronger vulgarity might be used--e.g. sod-all and sod off. As far as 'naughty' words go, this one is fairly mild these days, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of users of the word are unaware of its etymology.

7 comments:

Rebecca said...

Wow, you'd think 'sod's law' was a lot older than that, well I would anyway...

lynneguist said...

Well, it is possible that it was in speech earlier than that, but the OED has lots of earlier cites for Murphy's law, but Sod's law comes later.

Anonymous said...

Since you brought up that a Murphy who looks Irish might feel different about the word and I am a American Murphy who looks Irish, I had to say that I don't take offense at it nor do any of the Murphys I know. In fact, I've known Murphy's who have a fondness for it, in a joking "this is my law" kind of a way. In my opinion, anti-Irish sentiment, while common at one point is nonexistant today. Therefore, few Irish-Americans would be bothered by the etymology of something like "Paddywagon" since there is no longer a discriminatory culture againist the Irish and the US and hasn't been for several generations.

lynneguist said...

I'm not saying that I'm offended by it, but that the notion that there was a connection between Irishness and things going wrong is something that I've been exposed to, as a Murphy who looks Irish in the US. It probably depends a lot on generational factors and where one lives. I don't believe that people who use the term generally think of it as anti-Irish and in almost all contexts, it's not.

John Cowan said...

Wikipedia has plenty to say on Murphy's Law, and almost everything about it is debatable, but there's no doubt that the Murphy part is connected with an individual Murphy, an American of Irish origin.

This article also denies that Murphy's and Sod's Laws are the same thing. Stephen Jay Gould claimed that paleontologists generally, even American ones, use the latter term.

Anonymous said...

I can categorically tell you that Sod's Law has been around centuries before 'Murphy's Law' which the American contractor coined after the engineer (Surname Murphy) this was based on the precept of Sod's Law, but by changing it thus being humerous. The OED is not the fountain of all knowledge and quite often has mistakes.

lynneguist said...

Categorical telling is not evidence though. Would you like to share yours?