The Friday Fillip

This fillip is about law, oddly, but a law far more profound than any made by parliaments. I speak of Muphry’s Law.


Well, no, actually, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. Muphry’s [sic] Law was created sixteen years ago by John Bangsund in The Society of Editors Newsletter and given expression thus:

(a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written; (b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book; (c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault; (d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

The article by Bangsund contains a number of wonderful and classical illustrations. And there’s a lovely (near) illustration of this law at work in a recent Language Log column, all the more delicious because it involved Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame and his correction of an article in The Economist for using “Cornish pasties” instead of Cornish pastries.

But as far as I’m concerned Muphry’s Law, wonderful though it may be, is simply an illustration of a wider principle that, having some time ago flung modesty to the winds, I call Fodden’s Law Of Perversity (which also has nothing to do with pasties of that sort). I can give you illustrations of FLOP in action, however I am experiencing difficulty in capturing this fundamental aspect of fate in mere words. FLOP says, for example, that courses on teaching are invariably badly taught; or that books on logic will contain glaring mistakes in reasoning; or that health foods can make you sick.

You might think that Burns came close with “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” But that’s pretty much Mr. Murphy’s Law. Whereas, Fodden’s Law points out that the “gley” isn’t just any old “gley” but one rather more suited to the very nature of the scheme, a “gley” with a “glee” attached. As though, for instance, the unintended consequences of a statute introduced to eradicate “X” but which succeeds in fostering “X” were not unintended at all, but in fact aimed at all along by some trickster force. This perverse — and pervasive — agency has to be acknowledged when, as we must, we recognize the ever increasing burden placed on us all by a technology whose fondest and only goal is to to lighten our loads.

And so it goes. Yet, I must say that the more I’ve tried to frame FLOP in precise words the more I’ve come to suspect that it is itself a victim of this law of perversity — perhaps the necessarily prime victim — and so must remain ill-drafted. Feel free, however, to take a crack at the thing. Just be prepared for it to come out… odd.


  1. Pauline Rosenbaum

    I hadn’t heard of Muphry’s Law but I can relate. As a law student I edited a professor’s scholarly articles. The first footnote in one of the articles named me and expressed appreciation for “the her excellent editing and comments on this article [sic]”. It was the one sentence in the article I hadn’t proofread because it was inserted last.
    I love and read it regularly. Keep it up!

  2. Simon:

    Oh I think you are onto something here. I think Douglas Adams was thinking along a similar vein:

    “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”
    Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless

    Long live Murphy’s laws! Blessed is the man who can laugh at himself, for he will never cease to be amused.