Friday, March 31, 2006

The "rule of thumb" is not about wife-beating

Category: Phrases
According to urban legend, the "rule of thumb" originated from a law in the 1400's stating that a husband could beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb.

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."[4]

In the 19th century there were laws in England regarding wife-beating and thumb-thick rods.[1,2,3,4] However, there is no written record connecting the laws to the phrase any earlier than the 20th century, and the link has been labeled a 'feminist fiction' by researchers.

Not only that, but as Shaeffer notes[3], while abolishing it altogether would have been better, the original laws were actually improving the situation for women at the time by restricting the type of weapon husbands could use.

Where I learned it:
An email of 'Interesting facts' from my brother Andrew.

  1. "Rule of Thumb and Wife-Beating", Womens History,
  2. "Origin(s) of 'Rule of Thumb'", WMST
  3. "The 'Rule of Thumb for Wife-Beating' Hoax", Robert Sheaffer
  4. "Rule of thumb", The Phrase Finder

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

'Tom Sawyer' was NOT the first typewritten novel

Category: Literature
It is commonly held that 'Tom Sawyer', written by Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), was the first novel to be written on a typewriter. Although it is hard to say definitely, it seems this is most likely incorrect. However, it is an understandable assumption to make, since Clemens himself made that claim in a letter written in 1904.

Here is the timeline, as far as I can determine:
  1. 1874 - Clemens purchases his first typewriter for $125. His first two letters are written on December 9th, 1894.[1]
  2. 1875 - Clemens writes to Remington declaring he is no longer using his typewriter as people keep asking him about it.[2] In another letter he declares it is corrupting his morals because it makes him want to swear.[3] He gives it away twice that year and it is eventually returned both times.
  3. 1876 - 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' is published.
  4. 1883 - 'Life on the Mississippi' is submitted as a typewritten manuscript. Clemens did not actually type it himself, however. He dictated it based on a hand-written original draft.[4]
  5. 1904 - Clemens writes in his 'Unpublished Autobiography' that he believes 'Tom Sawyer' was probably his first typewritten novel, dictated to a typist sometime during 1874.[1]
So, in conclusion, it seems likely that although he was probably still the first author to submit a typewritten novel for publication, Clemens was mistaken when he recalled that 'Tom Sawyer' was that novel. 'Life on the Mississippi' is the more likely candidate. All that said, the evidence is not entirely conclusive and it is possible that Clemens was correct.

Where I learned it:
An 'Interesting facts' email, forwarded by my brother Andrew.

  1. "Mark Twain and Typewriter",
  2. "MT & the typewriter", Mark Twain in His Times
  3. "Mark Twain's letters - 1867-1875", Read Book Online
  4. "The First Typewriter", The QWERTY Connection

Interesting facts or fiction?

Today I was forwarded an email entitled 'Interesting facts', listing off about thirty statements which are boldly claimed to be true. As a way to get myself posting on this darn blog again I'm going to examine each of the statements to see if they are actually true or not. Some may be hard to prove one way or the other, so we'll see how it goes. Stay tuned...