Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writing Murphy's Law: A Fable

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Everyone knows the saying and knows it's called "Murphy's Law," but does anyone know how it came about?

It started in aerospace engineering when using a human, specifically Murphy's unnamed assistant. What Edward Murphy actually said was that if there was a way for his assistant to make a mistake he would. In conversation later among the team members, the aphorism was pared down to its basics and thus a legend was born.

The idea that if something can go wrong, it will, or that if someone can make a mistake, they will, has been around as long as there have been people. Jehovah set the whole thing up when he told Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, thus guaranteeing it would happen.

In 1841 in Norwalk, Ohio, a newspaper ran this parody of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh:

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

But back to Murphy's Law and Nick T. Sparks who put Murphy's Law on the literary map with the publication of A History of Murphy's Law where the story goes that the first run printing of the book had to be destroyed because of a typographical error that was not discovered until several of the books were sold, thus proving the aphorism that when something can go wrong, it will. In this case, on the cover of the book.

There is nothing so humiliating or depressing as seeing the cover of your very own book for the first time. For Nick T. Sparks, it was a mixed blessing. His books were already on the shelf when he opened the box sent by his publisher and gazed with excitement on the cover of the book, A History of Murpy's Law. It took a few moments for the euphoria to die a quick and violent death as the realization of what he saw sank in. The worst had happened, something had gone wrong and hundreds of thousands of books were sitting on bookshelves around the country with a glaring mistake on the cover: Murpy's Law.

The editors at Periscope Film didn't catch it, neither did the copy editor or printer, and no one in the marketing department saw what was obvious to Sparks. On the front cover in bold yellow type, Murphy's Law had struck before anyone would open the book and read one of the sixty-eight pages. Murpy's Law. Could anything be worse? Not even when Why Everything You know About Murphy's Law is Wrong was serialized and published as a four-part article had the Law descended and hit with such force. There were a couple of minor mistakes in syntax, grammar and spelling, but they were minor, almost invisible compared to the first run publication of the book. What could Sparks do but laugh?

He was still laughing when he called the publisher's office and requested his editor get a copy of the book and look at it, really look at it. The editor's groan turned into a banshee wail when the enormity of the mistake hit with full force. The very idea of recalling hundreds of thousands of books from retailers all over the country was a monumentally daunting task, and then there was the publisher to face. Who would get the axe over this one? The buck could not be passed fast enough or far enough.

It is sad to say that all the books were recalled and consumers were hunted down and forced to give up their copies of The History of Murpy's Law so new covers could be printed and hurriedly replaced. It was the worst typographical error in the history of printing, at least to publisher and editor of the book. I think it was the ghost of Murphy's assistant making sure that his fame would not be forgotten and so the world would realize that mistakes . . . happen.

When mistakes happen in minting coins and paper money it turns otherwise ordinary money, few seldom see except as a way to pay for good and services, into an item to treasure, an item that will inevitably go up in value. Stamps with airplanes printed upside down or monarchs facing the wrong direction are sought after and cherished. In books, errors bring readers to a screeching halt in grammar shock when reading racked with guilt where wracked with guilt should be or, in a financial article, pay the principal replaces pay the principle, even though everyone knows that principals seldom required bribing to discipline rebellious students. Such mistakes in grammar are the result of sloppy work and lazy writers unwilling or unable to use a dictionary when in doubt. Strict grammarians cringe, wail, and gnash their teeth while less exacting readers keep turning page after page, occasionally stopping just long enough to sip their glasses of wine, nibble a bit of cheese or strew crumbs of food between the pages while chuckling softly at misplaced subjects and dangling participles.

In the end, when all is said and done, Murpy's Law will out.

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