Rule of Thumb

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Rule of Thumb : Phrases


A means of estimation made according to a rough and ready practical rule, not based on science or exact measurement.



This has been said to derive from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it is was no thicker than his thumb. In 1782 Judge Sir Francis Buller is reported as having made this legal ruling. The following year James Gillray published a satirical cartoon attacking Buller and caricaturing him as 'Judge Thumb'. The cartoon shows a man beating a fleeing woman and Buller carrying two bundles of sticks. The caption reads "thumbsticks - for family correction: warranted lawful!"

It seems that Buller was hard done by. He was notoriously harsh in his punishments, but there's no evidence that he ever made the ruling that he is infamous for. Edward Foss, in his authoritative work The The Judges of England, 1870, wrote that, despite a searching investigation, "no substantial evidence has been found that he ever expressed so ungallant an opinion".

It's certainly the case that, although British common law once held that it was legal for a man to chastise his wife in moderation (whatever that meant), the 'rule of thumb' has never been the law in England. Despite the phrase being in common use since the 17th century and appearing many thousands of times in print, there are no printed records that associate it with domestic violence until the 1970s. The false stories that assumed the wife-beating law to be true may have been influenced by Gillray's cartoon.

Even if people mistakenly believed that law to exist, there's no reason to connect the legal meaning with the phrase - which has been in circulation since at least 1692, when it appeared in print, in Sir William Hope's training manual for aspiring swordsmen, The Compleat Fencing-master, 1692:

"What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art."

The origin remains unknown, although it is likely that it refers to one of the numerous ways that thumbs have been used to estimate things - judging the alignment or distance of an object by holding the thumb in one's eye-line, the temperature of brews of beer, measurement of an inch from the joint to the nail to the tip, or across the thumb, etc. 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.
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