I'm currently enjoying actor Harriet Walter's book, Other People's Shoes: Thoughts on Acting, in which she writes about her acting life. It is a very conversational book, and, as I read, I feel as though I am taking tea and chatting with a wise friend. In fact, sharing a cuppa with Ms. Walter is now one of my genie-lamp wishes.
In several passages, she mentions "sod's law", the British term for what we in America call "Murphy's Law", which states that anything that can go wrong will. I love words, so because I hope to keep increasing my working vocabulary until eons after the day I die, I did some research into origins.
"Sod" is a slang term that can be defined as a pitiable, awkward, or objectionable person. No one ventures an opinion about who the original "sod" might have been. But I'm voting for Adam, in the Bible, because his very name means dirt, or earth, which is also the non-slang meaning of sod. And, it could be said that he did act like a sod, too.
In any case, I found this passage, from British stage magician Nevile Maskelyne, writing in 1908. He doesn't name it, but he does describe sod's law:
It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains.
Personally, I am not convinced that depravity lurks in inanimate things. Nor am I certain that there is any such thing as an inanimate anything. Rather, I suspect these entities are animate, but move so slowly that we can't pay attention long enough to be aware of their progress. In fact, we don't even live long enough to do so. It's all relative, isn't it? To a fly, we are ponderously slow; to a slug, we are a blur and a breeze.
Furthermore, I don't accept that such objects are necessarily depraved. In fact, I think they might be terrifically funny, and cracking jokes all the time, hoping we'll laugh. How else to explain the car keys that vanish and reappear? Or the cell phone one searches for frantically, while it is hiding in one's hand? Or my laptop, which changes the character palette for no reason – as it is doing this morning, insisting on returning to italics even after countless corrections, and arbitrarily switching to the Polish kezboard so that I find I am uging some verz odd spellings of words?
In truth, my computer's shenanigans do seem to be inching toward the doorway to Depravity, as Ms. Mac answers my "Why must you?" with "Because I can".
In any case (aauurrrgh!), I feel lukewarm about the expression "Murphy's Law". Why does Murphy get the credit? Actually, there is an answer to that question, and it's here.
But the older usage "sod's law" seems more democratic somehow, and more polite. No matter how our lives unfold, we all get an equal chance to take our turn being the sod.