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?

  • I think it's pretty meaningless to ask for the "origin" of such usages, but probably a significant factor in the "popularisation" of this one would be Willo Davis Roberts' 1989 children's mystery book What Could Go Wrong? – FumbleFingers Dec 14 '12 at 21:43
  • I must've missed that one, @FumbleFingers. (Though Roberts' Baby-Sitting Is a Dangerous Job was a real favorite in our house.) I was unsurprised to find that the ironic use of "What could go wrong?" and its variants has been around for some time. A Google search led me quickly to this site devoted to this very topic. – Rebecca Wilson Dec 14 '12 at 23:38
  • @Rebecca: I never heard of him/it either - I just Googled "What Could Go Wrong" trope, which as you'll (probably) see includes the text "W. D. Robert's children's mystery" in the top result - from the excellent tvtropes site. For reasons I don't understand, that text isn't actually on the tvtropes page. It's obviously this "ironically rhetorical" trope, but it won't be anywhere near the earliest usage. – FumbleFingers Dec 15 '12 at 0:51

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.

  • I'll have to take your word for it on the meaning of the Shakespeare reference. His English makes no sense to me. – T.E.D. Dec 15 '12 at 5:44
  • @T.E.D.: Shakespeare made up half his words, stole all his plots, and was barely understandable to his contemporaries. Executive summary: entertaining but overrated. – Mitch Dec 15 '12 at 16:04
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    @Mitch You have evidence that he was "barely understandable to his contemporaries"? At least 36 plays produced over 22 years, and a full share in the company, argue that his contributions were popular and commercially valued. – StoneyB Dec 15 '12 at 16:27
  • @StoneyB: Get over it. The only reason Shakespeare is taught in school is ossification of the curriculum. Your high school English teachers just couldn't bring themselves to tell you the obvious observation that Shakespeare was a hack. – Mitch Dec 15 '12 at 18:36
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    @Mitch Pish. He's the most rewarding writer I've ever directed. – StoneyB Dec 15 '12 at 20:03

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