What is the (likely) origin of the popular usage of the phase "What could go wrong?" or "What could possibly go wrong?" as a theatrical plot device or ironic commentary? Does this usage pre-date or post-date Murphy's Law?
The earliest use I have found of the phrase in this premonitory sense is the following dialogue, which occurs on pages 88-9 of Matilda Mary Pollard’s Cora: Three Years of a Girl’s Life (n.d., but the Bodleian Library stamp reads December 1882):
“What could I do better for you and my children? I have a hundred and seventy shares in the bank now, and it pays splendid dividends. The capital is enormous. Henderson showed me a draft of the last balance-sheet this very evening. [...] Only think! the cautious, canny Scotchman, Tomson, has promised to take twenty shares in the bank himself.”
”Oh, I am so sorry! What would become of him, poor man, if anything went wrong? He has nine helpless children depending on him!” exclaimed said Mrs. Burges, with a look of alarm and a tone of intense anxiety.
“What could possibly go wrong in a flourishing concern like the Brixleigh Bank? My dear, you are too fond of conjuring up imaginary evils.”
It will hardly surprise you to learn that three years later, on page 186, it is revealed that Mr. Burges has died of the shock of
“that smash of Henderson’s bank—Henderson of Longfleet Hall. ‘Longfirm’ it ought to have been called, for it was all kept up by other people’s money—a gigantic fraud, that’s what it was!”
But the idea of course is much older. It is to be found, with the same cast but reversed roles, in Shakespeare:
Macbeth If we ſhould faile?
Lady Macbeth We faile?
But ſcrew your courage to the ſticking place,
And wee’le not fayle
I trust we all know what came of that.