Rule of thumb
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In English, the phrase ''rule of thumb'' refers to an approximate method for doing something, based on practical experience rather than theory. This usage of the phrase can be traced back to the 17th century and has been associated with various trades where quantities were measured by comparison to the width or length of a
thumb The thumb is the first digit of the hand, next to the index finger. When a person is standing in the medical anatomical position (where the palm is facing to the front), the thumb is the outermost digit. The Medical Latin English noun for thu ...
. A modern
folk etymology Folk etymology (also known as popular etymology, analogical reformation, reanalysis, morphological reanalysis or etymological reinterpretation) is a change in a word or phrase resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more famili ...
holds that the phrase is derived from the maximum width of a stick allowed for wife-beating under English common law, but no such law ever existed. This belief may have originated in a rumored statement by 18th-century judge Sir Francis Buller that a man may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. The rumor produced numerous jokes and satirical cartoons at Buller's expense, but there is no record that he made such a statement. English jurist Sir William Blackstone wrote in his ''
Commentaries on the Laws of England The ''Commentaries on the Laws of England'' are an influential 18th-century treatise on the common law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent, judge-made law, or case law) is the body of law created by judges and similar quasi-j ...
'' of an "old law" that once allowed "moderate" beatings by husbands, but he did not mention thumbs or any specific implements. Wife-beating has been officially outlawed for centuries in England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) and the United States, but continued in practice; several 19th-century American court rulings referred to an "ancient doctrine" that the judges believed had allowed husbands to physically punish their wives using implements no thicker than their thumbs. The phrase ''rule of thumb'' first became associated with domestic abuse in the 1970s, after which the spurious legal definition was cited as factual in a number of law journals, and the
United States Commission on Civil Rights The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) is a bipartisan, independent commission of the United States federal government, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 during the Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eisenhower administration, that is charged with ...
published a report on domestic abuse titled "Under the Rule of Thumb" in 1982. Some efforts were made to discourage the phrase, which was seen as taboo owing to this false origin. During the 1990s, several authors correctly identified the spurious etymology; however, the connection to domestic violence was cited in some legal sources even into the early 2000s.


Origin and usage

In English, ''rule of thumb'' refers to an approximate method for doing something, based on practical experience rather than theory. The exact origin of the phrase is uncertain. Its earliest (1685) appearance in print comes from a posthumously published collection of sermons by Scottish preacher James Durham: "Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb (as we use to speak), and not by Square and Rule." The phrase is also found in Sir William Hope's ''The Compleat Fencing Master'', 1692: "What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art". James Kelly's ''The Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs'', 1721, includes: "No Rule so good as Rule of Thumb, if it hit", meaning a practical approximation. Historically, the width of the thumb, or "thumb's breadth", was used as the equivalent of an
inch Measuring tape with inches The inch (symbol: in or ″) is a unit of length in the British imperial and the United States customary systems of measurement. It is equal to yard or of a foot. Derived from the Roman uncia ("twelf ...
in the cloth trade; similar expressions existed in Latin and French as well. The thumb has also been used in
brewing Brewing is the production of beer by steeping a starch source (commonly cereal grains, the most popular of which is barley) in water and #Fermenting, fermenting the resulting sweet liquid with Yeast#Beer, yeast. It may be done in a brewery ...
beer, to gauge the heat of the brewing vat. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer writes that ''rule of thumb'' means a "rough measurement". He says that "Ladies often measure
yard The yard (symbol: yd) is an English units, English unit of length in both the British imperial units, imperial and US United States customary units, customary systems of measurement equalling 3 foot (unit), feet or 36 inches. Sinc ...
lengths by their thumb. Indeed, the expression 'sixteen nails make a yard' seems to point to the thumb-nail as a standard" and that "Countrymen always measure by their thumb". According to ''Phrasefinder'', "The phrase joins the whole nine yards as one that probably derives from some form of measurement but which is unlikely ever to be definitively pinned down".


Folk etymology


English common law

A modern
folk etymology Folk etymology (also known as popular etymology, analogical reformation, reanalysis, morphological reanalysis or etymological reinterpretation) is a change in a word or phrase resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more famili ...
relates the phrase to domestic violence via an alleged rule under English common law which permitted wife-beating provided that the implement used was a rod or stick no thicker than a man's thumb. Wife-beating has been officially outlawed in England and the United States for centuries, but enforcement of the law was inconsistent, and wife-beating did continue. However, a rule of thumb permitting wife-beating was never codified in law. English jurist
William Blackstone Sir William Blackstone (10 July 1723 – 14 February 1780) was an English jurist, judge and Tory (British political party), Tory politician of the eighteenth century. He is most noted for writing the ''Commentaries on the Laws of England''. Bo ...
wrote in the late 1700s in his ''
Commentaries on the Laws of England The ''Commentaries on the Laws of England'' are an influential 18th-century treatise on the common law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent, judge-made law, or case law) is the body of law created by judges and similar quasi-j ...
'' that, by an "old law", a husband had formerly been justified in using "moderate correction" against his wife but was barred from inflicting serious violence; Blackstone did not mention either thumbs or sticks. According to Blackstone, this custom was in doubt by the late 1600s, and a woman was allowed "security of the peace" against an abusive husband. Twentieth-century legal scholar William L. Prosser wrote that there was "probably no truth to the legend" that a husband was allowed to beat his wife "with a stick no thicker than his thumb". The association between the thumb and implements of domestic violence can be traced to 1782, when English judge Sir Francis Buller was ridiculed for purportedly stating that a husband could beat his wife, provided that he used a stick no wider than his thumb. There is no record of Buller making such a statement, but the rumor generated much satirical press, with Buller being mocked as "Judge Thumb" in published jokes and cartoons. In the following century, several court rulings in the United States referred to a supposed common-law doctrine which the judges believed had once allowed wife-beating with an implement smaller than a thumb. None of these courts referred to such a doctrine as a rule of thumb or endorsed such a rule, but all permitted some degree of wife-beating so long as it did not result in serious injury.


19th-century United States

An 1824 court ruling in
Mississippi Mississippi () is a U.S. state, state in the Southeastern United States, Southeastern region of the United States, bordered to the north by Tennessee; to the east by Alabama; to the south by the Gulf of Mexico; to the southwest by Louisiana; a ...
stated that a man was entitled to enforce "domestic discipline" by striking his wife with a whip or stick no wider than the judge's thumb. In a later case in
North Carolina North Carolina () is a U.S. state, state in the Southeastern United States, Southeastern region of the United States. The state is the List of U.S. states and territories by area, 28th largest and List of states and territories of the United ...
(''State v. Rhodes'', 1868), the defendant was found to have struck his wife "with a switch about the size of this fingers"; the judge found the man not guilty due to the switch being smaller than a thumb. The judgment was upheld by the state supreme court, although the later judge stated: In 1873, also in North Carolina, the judge in ''State v. Oliver'' ruled, "We assume that the old doctrine that a husband had the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no larger than his thumb, is not the law in North Carolina". These latter two cases were cited by the legal scholar Beirne Stedman when he wrote in a 1917 law review article that an "old common law rule" had permitted a husband to use "moderate personal chastisement on his wife" so long as he used "a switch no larger than his thumb". By the late 19th century, most American states had outlawed wife-beating; some had severe penalties such as
forty lashes Flagellation (Latin , 'whip'), flogging or whipping is the act of beating the human body with special implements such as whips, Birching, rods, Switch (rod), switches, the cat o' nine tails, the sjambok, the knout, etc. Typically, flogging ...
or imprisonment for offenders. There was a common belief in parts of the United States that a man was permitted to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb; however, this belief was not connected with the phrase ''rule of thumb'' until the 1970s.


20th-century feminist revival

In the 20th century, public concern with the problem of domestic violence declined at first, and then re-emerged along with the resurgent
feminist movement The feminist movement (also known as the women's movement, or feminism) refers to a series of social movements and political campaigns for radical and liberal reforms on women's issues created by the inequality between men and women. Such ...
in the 1970s. The first recorded link between wife-beating and the phrase ''rule of thumb'' appeared in 1976, in a report on domestic violence by women's-rights advocate
Del Martin Dorothy Louise Taliaferro "Del" Martin (May 5, 1921 – August 27, 2008) and Phyllis Ann Lyon (November 10, 1924 – April 9, 2020) were an American lesbian A lesbian is a Homosexuality, homosexual woman.Zimmerman, p. 453. The ...
: While Martin appears to have meant the phrase ''rule of thumb'' only as a figure of speech, some feminist writers treated it as a literal reference to an earlier law. The following year, a book on battered women stated: Despite this erroneous reading of the common law (which is a set of judicial principles rather than a written law with individual sections) the spurious legal doctrine of the "rule of thumb" was soon mentioned in a number of law journals. The myth was repeated in a 1982 report by the
United States Commission on Civil Rights The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) is a bipartisan, independent commission of the United States federal government, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 during the Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eisenhower administration, that is charged with ...
on domestic abuse titled "Under the Rule of Thumb", as well as a later United States Senate report on the
Violence Against Women Act The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) is a United States federal law (Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, ) signed by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994. The Act provided $1.6 billion toward investig ...
. In the late 20th century, some efforts were made to discourage the phrase ''rule of thumb'', which was seen as
taboo A taboo or tabu is a social group's ban, prohibition, or avoidance of something (usually an utterance or behavior) based on the group's sense that it is excessively repulsive, sacred, or allowed only for certain persons.''Encyclopædia Britannica ...
owing to this false origin. Patricia T. O'Conner, former editor of the ''New York Times Book Review'', described it as "one of the most persistent myths of political correctness". During the 1990s, several authors wrote about the false etymology of ''rule of thumb'', including the conservative social critic Christina Hoff Sommers, who described its origin in a misunderstanding of Blackstone's commentary. Nonetheless, the myth persisted in some legal sources into the early 2000s.


See also

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Notes


References


Further reading

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External links


"Does 'rule of thumb' refer to an old law permitting wife beating?"
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''World Wide Words''

European Men Profeminist Network {{DEFAULTSORT:Rule Of Thumb English phrases