Good Questions: How Oxbridge beat Camford

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Why is it always 'Oxbridge', never 'Camford'? (Michael Brown, Glentham, Lincs)

Both Thackeray (who appears to have coined the terms) and H G Wells used both Oxbridge and Camford in their writings. In Thackeray's Pendennis (1849) we have: ' 'Rough and ready, your chum seems,' the Major said. 'Somewhat different from your dandy friends at Oxbridge.' ' A year later, in the second volume of the same work, he wrote: 'He was a Camford man and very nearly got the English Prize poem.'

Wells also used Oxbridge first (in 1912) and left it until 1939 before writing: 'Camford had never made the slightest attempt to give any coherent picture of the universe to the new generation that came to it for instructions.'

Before the 1950s, however, the words were used for fictional universities similar to, but not identified specifically with either Oxford nor Cambridge. 'Oxbridge' in its modern usage dates back to the 1950s as a term to denote the non-redbrick universities. Its use in preference to 'Camford' may be for reasons of euphony, but one might also conjecture that it provides a fairer balance between Oxford and Cambridge. The short but stressed 'Ox' neatly balances the longer 'bridge' to provide a word favouring neither. And anyway, Camford sounds so provincial, don't you think?

Is there any identifiable first reference to Sod's Law (also known as Murphy's Law)? Can it be traced to one particular Murphy? Does it only affect inhabitants of the UK and Ireland? And is there any way of avoiding it? (Nic Coidan, Rochdale, Lancs)

Any distinctions that may ever have existed between the Laws of Sod and Murphy seem to have become blurred beyond recognition with the passage of time, though it is clear that in their earliest days Murphy's Law affected only Americans, while Sod's Law was restricted to Britain and Ireland (where in gentrified classes it was referred to as 'Spode's Law').

Two different Murphys appear to have converged to create the law in the late 1940s: one was an idiocy-prone character in educational cartoons produced by the US Navy, the other was Capt E Murphy Jr, of the Wright Field-Aircraft Laboratory in California, whose casual remarks led George Nichols to formalise the Law.

The simplest statement of Murphy's Law is: 'If anything can go wrong, it will.' Often a proviso is added: 'And if it can't, it might.' An alternative, simple if paranoid formulation is: 'Things are out to get us.' The closely related Murphy's First Law of Biology, quoted in the Scientific American in 1970, states: 'Under any given set of environmental conditions, an experimental animal behaves as it damn well pleases.'

Although a brief search through German, Spanish and Italian dictionaries has failed to reveal equivalents to Murphy/Sod, the Robert Collins French Dictionary not only translates them but even offers a discriminating nuance. Whereas Sod's Law is the loi de l'emmerdement maximum, Murphy's version translates as loi de la guigne maximum.

The only documented way of avoiding Murphy/Sod is to try to demonstrate it. If, for example, you are trying to prove that bread always falls butter- side down, you can be sure, by a simple application of Sod's Law, that it will not do so.

How did the expression 'It'll all come out in the wash' originate? I know that by washing garments they become clean, but I thought the expression meant that there will be revelations later. (John Whigham, Dulwich)

Trollope and Kipling are to blame for this one. In 1876, Trollope wrote: 'The effects which causes will produce, the manner in which this or that will come out in the washing, do not strike even Cabinet Ministers at a glance.'

The implication here is of washing as a cleansing, perhaps even shrinking, process, that ought to be but is often not predictable. It is a process something goes through to reach its final state, with all the consequences that may imply.

The phrase was brought into common usage by Kipling's 1903 poem, Stellenbosch. The refrain after the first verse runs:

And it all goes into the laundry,

But it never comes out in the wash,

'Ow we're sugared about by the old men

('Eavy sterned amateur old men])

That 'amper an' 'inder an' scold men

For fear o' Stellenbosch]

At the end of the poem, when the fighting men have suffered for their general's incompetence, and then been blamed while he collected decorations instead of being sent in punishment to the town Stellenbosch, the refrain changes to:

An' it all went into the laundry,

But it never came out in the wash,

We were sugared about by the old men

(Panicky, perishin' old men)

That 'amper an' 'inder an' scold men

For fear o' Stellenbosch]

Like Trollope, Kipling is concerned with things that do not come out in the wash. The image is of truth going down the plug-hole. Since then, however, the phrase has been generally used in a positive sense, expressing a hope that something will emerge from the washing process, though there is usually a glimmer of groundless optimism about it.

(Photographs omitted)