16
Mar
10

rule of thumb


Ever wondered what led to the origin of the often used phrase “The Rule of Thumb”? Some interesting beliefs below:

The ‘rule of thumb’ 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 and in the following year James Gillray published a satirical cartoon attacking Buller and caricaturing him as ‘Judge Thumb’.

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.

Even if people mistakenly supposed the law to exist, there’s no reason to believe that anyone ever called it the ‘rule of thumb’. 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, when the notion was castigated by feminists.

The phrase itself has been in circulation since the 1600s. In 1692, it appeared in print in Sir William Hope’s training manual for aspiring swordsmen, The Compleat Fencing-master:

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

The origin of the phrase remains unknown. 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.

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1 Response to “rule of thumb”


  1. 1 Abhay
    March 17, 2010 at 9:06 am

    nice 1….weird phrases have the strangest of origins and are invariably coined by the british 🙂


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