November 5, 2006

I've discovered there is a name for taking all day to read the newspaper. It's called Parkinson's law. It states: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." I looked into this. C Northcote Parkinson was a 20th-century British historian.. But will he be remembered for his writing? No. His legacy is the law he left behind, a truism of human nature. I want one.

So how does someone get their own idiom? It's the next best thing to having a comet named after you, which is more glamorous but requires you to be an astronomer. And you have to sight it first and claim it. Halley's comet was said to have been sighted by Edmund Halley, who predicted it would return in 1758. Turns out that Halley had a little rivalry with Isaac Newton. I suppose if your nemesis comes up with the three laws of motion, a good way to trump him is with a comet. Having your name on an idiom might not be as exciting as having a comet, but it's better than a hurricane. I met someone recently called Katrina and thought how lucky she is to be a cheerful person. Imagine if it had been Hurricane Ariel that slammed into New Orleans? I'd be associated with tragedy and neglect even more than I already am.

So I was curious. Who was Murphy? His luck couldn't have been that bad if he managed to get his name attached to the most recognisable idiom of all time. But Murphy's law is so well known that there is a conflict over who has ownership of it. It supposedly originated in 1948 with Major Murphy, an engineer in the US Air Force. Entire books have been written about who was behind it. My favourite explanation is: "Some feckless Irish guy named Murphy, who was a builder."

Soon I found that laws/adages/idioms are all over the map. They are named after chemists, politicians, paediatricians - it's pretty random.

For instance, who's ever heard of Littlewood's law? This states that an individual can expect miracles to happen to them at the rate of about one a month. It was declared by Professor Littlewood - he died in 1977, presumably in the middle of the month before his miracle could save him.

But "about one per month" is a bit vague, isn't it? If you have five miracles in March and only one in April, you'll feel ripped off. Plus, what is considered a "miracle"? I think it's a miracle that I haven't got acanthamoeba from the tap water I use to clean my contact lenses. Is that my miracle per month?

You'd think, for a law to become part of the western world's lexicon, it would have to come from someone important, knowledgable or, at the very least, old. But the most recent law on record I found was created in 1990. It's Godwin's law and states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." Who is Mike Godwin? An American lawyer. So this gave me hope. If Godwin's law is out there, why not Leve's law? But choosing my law was tough. I was torn between four options.

Option 1: "If someone's telling you not to get your hopes up, prepare for rejection." Option 2: "If you suspect something's wrong, it is." Option 3: "When you think you're right, you probably are." Or option 4: "All of your worst fears are true."