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November 20, 2003 - Listener Mail - 2003-11-20

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: November 20, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- letters from listeners.

RS: Our segment on the origin of Murphy's Law -- which states that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong -- drew some responses. One came from Nick Spark, associate editor of Wings Magazine, an aviation history magazine. He spent the last year studying the origin of Murphy’s law and wanted to add a few points.

AA: Nick Spark says the history of Murphy's Law is, in effect, a victim of Murphy's Law. We know it came out of a test of a rocket sled in the 1940s. The test involved a famous Air Force colonel, John Paul Stapp, and, among others, an engineer named Ed Murphy. A simple wiring mistake caused an acceleration meter to fail.

RS: Beyond that, Nick Spark says there is no way to know definitively who said what and who deserves what credit for Murphy's Law. He also says Murphy's Law was actually more of an optimistic statement, not the pessimistic view of things as we now use it. John Paul Stapp, a doctor, went on to improve automobile safety.

SPARK: "'If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.' Well, look to prevent it from going wrong. Make it so it can't happen, then it won't go wrong. And John Paul Stapp himself who's involved in putting seatbelts in American cars certainly looked at it in that respect. He saved a lot of people's lives by putting a seatbelt in a car so when something did go wrong, people's lives were saved. And, I mean, it's actually very funny, because Murphy's Law is by now far more famous than John Paul Stapp himself, and he was on the cover of Time magazine in the 1950s."

AA: Nick Spark says Stapp didn't like to talk about his role in the coining of Murphy's Law.

SPARK: "He viewed it as a real distraction from the real message that he wanted to send out in the world, which is: look everybody, buckle up."

RS: We also asked our listeners to suggest their own versions of Murphy's Law.

Our friend Sebastiao Albano in Lavrinhas, Brazil, wrote: "I have the feeling that Mr. Murphy was a Brazilian. I say that because here, everything that works all over the world is yet to be constructed. Moreover, that law gets me every day:

"1. When I am alone at home, completely soaped under the shower, the telephone or the door bell rings.

"2. When I am in a hurry to type at work my computer refuses to turn on. I have to try between 20 and 50 times to turn it on.

AA: "3. When my computer definitely refuses to work I go to a cybercafe downtown and it is crowded.

"4. If I pass by the cybercafe some days later, with nothing in the world to do, it is completely empty.

RS: And "5. When I say everything right all my students are sleeping, but if I say something wrong they are completely awake.

AA: We also heard from William McGehee, who wrote: "I coined a phrase that I used when I was working in Saudi Arabia, because of so many different things that used to come up that I didn't know about: 'the knowing how is in the doing.'"

RS: This next letter has to do with a hand gesture we talked about with Melissa Wagner, author of "The Field Guide to Gestures."

AA: You put your pointer finger and little finger up, then hold down the two middle fingers with your thumb. In Texas, it's a way to mimic longhorn cattle, to show support for a college football team, the Texas Longhorns.

RS: And, as Melissa Wagner went on to explain, it's also become a popular gesture of affinity among fans at rock concerts.

WAGNER: "But the funny thing I found out is that in other parts of the world, it can actually mean your wife is cheating on you."

AA: And why is that? "I send you this e-mail in order to explain the connection between the horns gesture and infidelity," writes our friend Daniel Ortega in Madrid.

"It has its origin in the Greek myth of the Minotaur, a man with a bull's head, kept in a Cretan labyrinth and fed with human flesh. Before he ascended the throne of Crete, Minos struggled with his brothers for the right to rule. Minos prayed to the sea god Poseidon to send him a white bull, as a sign of approval by the gods for his reign. He promised to sacrifice the bull as an offering, and as a symbol of subservience.

RS: "A white bull emerged from the sea, but Minos liked the bull so much that he neglected to sacrifice it. As a punishment, Poseidon caused the king's wife to fall in love with the bull. The offspring of their lovemaking was a monster called the Minotaur. When Minos saw the newborn horned creature he discovered his wife’s infidelity. That is the reason why in certain Mediterranean countries, such as Spain or Italy, horns are related to infidelity.

AA: "In Spanish, we say the husband of a faithless woman is 'horned.' Furthermore, if a woman cheats on her husband we say that she 'puts the horns on him.' Of course, the horns gesture means infidelity in Spain. Curiously, the animal that represents Spain is a bull. Sincerely yours, Daniel Ortega."

RS: And that's all for Wordmaster this week. Our e-mail address is, and our Web site is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.