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


sarah lee said...

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. See the link below for more info.


Leslie Lim said...

Now this is the kinda of stuff i like to read about thanks for brightening my day