Finagle's law states that

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong at the worst possible moment.

It is commonly attributed to SF editor John Campbell. Did he actually coin the phrase, or did he merely popularize it? If the latter, who coined it? When was it coined and in what context?

  • The Wikipedia article for Murphy's Law gives some history of the sentiment, going back to 1866. It has apparently been restated several times since, in several different versions. – Hot Licks Mar 16 '15 at 22:45
  • And the Wikipedia article for Finagle's Law suggests that the name is, indeed, an invention of John Campbell, as stated above. The term "finagle" no doubt existed already, but Campbell likely felt it had a suitably humorous connotation to be cast into such a "law". – Hot Licks Mar 16 '15 at 22:52
  • @HotLicks I asked here because neither Wikipedia article answers my question. The article for Murphy's law isn't relevant because I'm asking about the formulation, not about the sentiment. The article for Finagle's Law lacks references — a good answer for this question would likely be a valid reference for the Wikipedia article. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Mar 16 '15 at 23:00

Murphy's Law parallels two other common terms for what is essentially the same pessimistic idea - Sod's Law and Finagle's Law. Of these three, Murphy's Law is by far the more commonly used.

Finagle's Law : ( Phrase Finder)

  • Finagle has been used in the USA, as a verb meaning 'to obtain a result by trickery; to deceive; to wangle'. A finagler is recorded in the American Dialect Society's Dialect Notes, 1922 as:

    • "One who stalls until someone else pays the check"
  • Soon afterwards (1926), Harold Wentworth listed it in the American Dialect Dictionary as 'US political cant.

  • The term probably had its origin in England. The English Dialect Dictionary lists the words fainaigue and feneague - meaning 'to cheat'.

  • The first example I have of 'Finagle's Law' in print dates from The Indiana Gazette, April 1979, although there are assertions that it dates from the 1940s. There's some evidence to show that Finagle's Law, while no doubt having been influenced by Murphy's Law, is not merely the same notion under another name. Finagle's Law is more often applied specifically as a spoof version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and is stated as 'The perversity of the Universe tends towards a maximum'. This pseudo-science background also applies to 'Finagle's Constant' - a mythical mathematical constant which is added to one side of an equation to obtain a result when the facts don't match the theory.

Finagle: (World Wide Web):

  • Finagle is US slang and means to obtain something by dishonest or devious means, to wangle or manoeuvre, or slyly gain an advantage by deceit. It dates from the 1920s, with the first known use being of finagler, a person who finagles. Harold Wentworth noted it in his American Dialect Dictionary as “political cant”. Wentworth and Flexner’s slang dictionary suggested it could mean in particular “one who stalls until somebody else pays the check”, a tightwad or miserly person.

  • Finagle has been traced to an English dialect word, once widely known along the Welsh Marches and down into the West Country in a variety of spellings, including fainaigue. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago supplied two main meanings. One was to revoke at cards (that is, to fail to follow suit despite being able to do so); the other was to fail to keep a promise or to shirk. A glossary of Herefordshire words dated 1839 says “If two men are heaving a heavy weight, and one of them pretends to be putting out his strength, though in reality leaving all the strain on the other, he is said to feneague.”

  • Taking it further back is almost impossible. The English Dialect Dictionary suggested it might derive from Old French fornier, to deny, and that the odd ending -aigue (often spelled -eague in dialect sources) might derive from the card-game sense of renege, with the same meaning as revoke, which was at one time spelled reneague.

  • 1
    By far the most common of these terms in Britain is Sod's Law. – WS2 Mar 16 '15 at 21:42
  • 1
    I knew about finagling, which I've always associated with US politicians "wheeler-dealing, horse-trading behind the scenes", rather than "prevaricating until someone else pays the bill". But I never knew about 'Finagle's Constant'. I like that one! – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '15 at 21:48
  • I'm surprised to see “Finagle's Law” dated (even tentatively) from 1979. While I can't cite any text by Campbell with this expression, I've found a lot of second-hand evidence that make it likely that he did use the term before his death in 1971. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Mar 16 '15 at 22:11
  • @Gilles - books.google.com/ngrams/… suggests the earliest usages date to late fifties. – user66974 Mar 16 '15 at 22:18
  • As to the date and provenance, the New Jersey State Bar Journal from 1960 contains a (tongue in cheek) article titled Finagle's Law (Apologies to Robert Sommer). "Robert Sommer" is presumably the well-known behavioral psychologist. Unfortunately the entire article is not available online, so it's impossible to determine if the "law" (in this case apparently specialized to law offices) is referencing work by Sommer or someone else. – Hot Licks Mar 16 '15 at 23:12

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