Murphy Was A Shlimazel

Ever have one of those decades?

Has it ever seemed you just can’t win for losing? Things just seem to go haywire?

Haywire is a low-tech term for out of control. It originated in the “1920s from hay+wire, from the use of hay-baling wire in makeshift repairs” — New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD).

When I was kid, people used to talk about things going kerflooey. Green’s Dictionary of Slang defined it, “crazy, chaotic, disorganized; usually in a phrase ‘go kerflooey,’ to go to pieces, to break down.”

If you work with machinery, you’ve probably experienced gremlins. A gremlin is “an imaginary mischievous sprite regarded as responsible for an unexplained problem or fault, especially a mechanical or electronic one” — NOAD.

Computers come pre-installed with gremlins and glitches. Ben Zimmer, Wall Street Journal’s language columnist, wrote on that Oxford English Dictionary “unsatisfyingly says that [glitch’s] etymology is ‘unknown.’” The origin is Yiddish — for “slide” or “slip.”

In official Hebrew, a flat tire is a neker a puncture. Israeli slang adopted the English word, pronouncing it pahntcher. By extension, a pahntcher means any glitch. Kind of takes the air out of you.

My grandmother used to say “A kurtze shtrich rayst gich — a short string tears faster.” Doesn’t that make you want to tie one on?

In America, the theory of why things go wrong became formalized into Murphy’s Law — “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Arthur Bloch wrote a series of books on Murphy’s Law and its corollaries. In the first book, Bloch said that the story of the origin of Murphy’s Law came to him because of a “fortunate (therefore, aberrant) set of circumstances.”

Bloch got a letter from George E. Nichols, Reliability & Quality Assurance Mgr. Viking Project Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA, with what purported to be the “true story of the naming of Murphy’s Law.”

Nichols said that, in 1949, he was the project manager of Project MX981, an experimental Air Force crash research test.

“The Law’s namesake was Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer from Wright Field Aircraft Lab. Frustration with a strap transducer which was malfunctioning due to an error in wiring the strain gauge bridges caused him to remark — ‘If there is any way to do it wrong, he will’ — referring to the technician who had wired the bridges at the Lab.”

Nichols said that he dubbed the maxim “Murphy’s Law.” And he attributed their project’s safety record to their “firm belief in Murphy’s Law, and our consistent effort to deny the inevitable.”

It’s a great story. But is it accurate?

Fred Shapiro, Associate (Library) Director for Collections and Access and Lecturer in Legal Research at Yale Law School, is the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. He cited several earlier sources for Murphy’s Law. A 1952 book about a mountain climbing expedition opens with the epigraph: “Anything That Can Possibly Go Wrong, Does — Ancient mountaineering adage.”

In 2003, Shapiro spoke with Nichols, who “stated that the original formulation was ‘If it can happen, it will happen.’”

Shapiro added that “there is no trace of documentation of the aviation ‘Murphy’s Law’ until 1955, when the following is found in the May-June issue of Aviation Mechanics Bulletin:

“Murphy’s Law: If an aircraft part can be installed incorrectly, someone will install it that way.”

Shapiro also quoted George Orwell’s War-time Diary, (18 May 1941): “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly. One has come to believe in that as if it were a law of nature.”

You may have heard the quote from the 18th-century poet Robert Burns. “The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” But even that was wrong. The original poem, “To a Mouse,” in Scottish dialect, goes:

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]/ In proving foresight may be vain:/ The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft a-gley [often go awry],/ An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,/ For promis’d joy.”

Like gravity, grief and pain pull people down. Murphy’s Law: The 26th Anniversary Edition included this gem: “Law of Conservation of Tsouris: The amount of aggravation in the universe is a constant.”

Which leads me to wonder about Murphy’s ancestry. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten drew distinctions between the shlemiel, the shlimazel and the nebech:

“The classic attempt to discriminate … runs: ‘A shlemiel is a man who is always spilling hot soup — down the neck of a shlimazel.’ Or, to make a triple distinction: The shlemiel trips, and knocks down the shlimazel; and the nebech repairs the shlimazel’s glasses.”

Rabbi Hershel Steinberg (Hamodia’s mashgiach, who usually tells me what I have to delete) adds: “The shlemiel spills the soup on the shlimazel, and the nudnik asks, ‘Was it hot?’”

I learned a practical variant from a printer in Yerushalayim: “rebbe gelt.” That’s the money you lose learning to do something right.

But there’s a deeper lesson. Years ago, in a doctor’s office in Far Rockaway, I found a poem on the wall in the waiting room. It was signed “Allen Schiller.” No doubt, the doctor thought my father’s words would help make his treatments more effective. The poem concluded:

“Sunshine must make shadows.”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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