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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Life’s Aphorisms are as Good for Comedy as for Living By

Life’s Aphorisms are as Good for Comedy as for Living By

If Something Can Go Wrong, It Will - MyName (Bantosh)
Laws, theories, principles, rules, fallacies and conundrums explain life. The most memorable maxims are the funniest and truest.

Across much of the world ‘Murphy’s Law’ or a variant is used to explain the notion that ‘if something can go wrong, it will’. It’s based on the idea that there is a perversity operating in life, and the human lot is to expect the downside. If toast falls, it will fall buttered-side down.

In Britain, such tiresome inconvenience is often styled ‘Sod’s Law’, while in the US the handy epithet SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fouled Up) serves the same purpose. It’s claimed this term began in the US military around 1941, when radio message encoding required scrambling into five letter code groups. When these groups were used to make sentences for fun, SNAFU caught on.

Beyond the random, indiscriminate whim of fate, some wisecracks believe, lies a deliberate obfuscation and malign purpose. Patrick Hutber, once City Editor of Britain’s Sunday Telegraph composed a ‘law’ in the 1970s that stated: ‘improvement means deterioration’, that was widely adopted in business generally.

Whoever Murphy Was, He Made a Lot of Laws

In his book Murphy’s Law (1977), Arthur Bloch articulated the frustration of phone ringing (this before cell phones) the moment somebody sits down, or it rains on a clean car… such ‘universal principle’ was in need of a name. He collected what he called ‘wit and wisdom’ from ‘demented technologists, bureaucrats, humanists and anti-social observers’ to fill his book, all named after fictitious and real people.

Bloch cited Andy Warhol who said (1978): ‘In the future, everyone will be famous for at least 15 minutes’ and HL Mencken who said: “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach’. Parkinson’s Law, ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’ was in an essay by the writer Cyril Northcote Parkinson in The Economist (1955), based on his observations of Britain’s Civil Service at work.

That august institution also inspired Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn with their British TV satire, Yes, Minister (1980-84) and Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88) to pass amusing commentary on the system without political bias: ‘Politicians like to panic, they need activity. It is their substitute for achievement’. The civil servant told the Minister: ‘The public doesn’t know anything about wasting government money. We are the experts’.

Some of the corollaries Bloch quoted to ‘Murphy’s Law‘ included: nothing is as easy as it looks; every solution breeds new problems; everything takes longer than thought; if several things can go wrong, the one that causes most damage will be it; left alone things go from bad to worse, and it’s impossible to make everything foolproof because fools are ingenious.

He went on: ‘if you’re feeling good, you’ll get over it’; ‘if you explain clearly so no one can misunderstand, somebody will’, and ‘Murphy was an optimist’. Some are so true of life that most readers can only nod in agreement. After the last screws have been removed from some difficult cover, it will be seen to be the wrong cover! If somebody is on a bicycle, it’s always uphill and against the wind.

Toothache starts on a Saturday night; the other queue is always faster; any given computer program is obsolete; anything dropped will always end up in the inaccessible corner and enough research will support any theory. The first myth of management is that it exists; authority assigns jobs to those least able to do them; two cars approaching each other on a deserted road will meet at the narrowest point, and ‘when all else fails, read the instructions’.

Everybody Can Lay Down A Law

A similar compendium by Harold Faber, The Book of Laws (1979), attempted to give credit to the originators of laws, precepts and corollaries. ‘All looks yellow to a jaundiced eye’, first came from Alexander Pope (1688-1744). The Law of the Marketplace: ‘Change or perish’ originally came from Robert Walker, The New Yorker, 1970). The First Law of Journalism: “Any official denial is de facto a confirmation’, originated with John Kifner in The New York Times, 1969.

Peter’s Law of Politics is one among several attributed to Laurence J Peter (1919-1990): ‘The unexpected always happens’. Peter was a hierarchiologist who devised The Peter Principle: ‘In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’. Faber himself coined a few choice ones: ‘Nobody runs for the Vice-Presidential nomination’ (1972) and ‘The First Law of Politics is get re-elected’ (1968).

Thomas L Martin published Malice in Blunderland (1973) to explain corporate bureaucracy as ‘wonderland of blunders… mishap, delay, confusion, maladroitness and induced group paranoia’. He also produced truths about hierarchiology (‘the higher you go, the fewer jobs there are’); defined glitches (inherent, built-in fallibility in design, plan, equipment or human contrivance); status quo (administration means rejection of conflict as desirable element of society) and quoted Lord Acton: ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely; great men are almost always bad men’ (1887).

Barnum’s Law, ‘you can fool most of the people most of the time’ is credited to circus entrepreneur PT Barnum (1810-1891). Many politicians and magicians have followed its wisdom through entire careers. The fact is, that people like little homespun observations, and have always done. Proverbs in The Bible is packed with wise prohibitions and commands.

If many of these old maxims were rewritten today, they’d take account of political correctness and its own comic potential. Just as with stand-up comedy that gives more than a grain of home truth via observational humour, so these ‘laws’ are funny, but contain elements of reality. Everybody needs to avoid mistakes, and if a little comic nugget can be gleaned from somebody’s made up life lesson, then so be it.

First published on Suite 101, 14 January 2011.

Photo: If Something Can Go Wrong, It Will – MyName (Bantosh)

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