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Rule of Thumb

August 5, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
I've been complaining about the expression, "rule of thumb" for years.

I once decided I'd go on a one-woman mission to eradicate the world of its use.

Why? Because, I once heard that sometime in history, a law stated that a man was permitted to beat his wife with a stick, as long as it was no thicker than his thumb.

I could never really prove that was the origin of the expression.

But, I was reminded of my dislike for the expression by an e-mail from my friend Damon today.

His e-mail said: "In the 1400s a law was set forth in England that a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence we have "the rule of thumb" expression.

So, I went searching the internet again to see what I could find.

I Googled "rule of thumb" and found 4,520,000 entries on the subject.

One interesting Web page,, noted, "The phrase dates back at least to 1692, when Sir W. Hope, Fencing Master, wrote, 'What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.'"

Others say it's a "feminist-inspired myth" from the 1970s.

Another explanation is that it was derived from woodworkers, so good at their trade that they measured with the length of their thumbs instead of a ruler.

And I bet if I read more of those "rule of thumb" matches, I'd learn a lot more.

Many of the entries debunk the wife-beating origin.

That makes me feel better; but I think I'll still cringe when I hear the expression.


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