>>> Item number 356, dated 93/12/07 16:22:40 -- ALL
Date: Tue, 7 Dec 1993 16:22:40 -0600 Reply-To: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> Sender: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> From: email@example.com Subject: Rule of thumb
From: D.K. Johnston
Department of Philosophy and Classics University of Regina
Can anyone give me a reference for the story that the phrase "Rule of thumb" originates from a legal principle regulating wife-beating? The OED (the big one) entry for the phrase does not mention such a principle; nor does the current meaning of the phrase suggest such an origin. (By "reference" I mean a case in which the principle was applied.) Thanks!
>>> Item number 362, dated 93/12/10 06:59:51 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 1993 06:59:51 -0600 Reply-To: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> Sender: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> From: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Rule of Thumb According to Brewer's DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE (rev. edn.,
Harper & Row, 1970), the phrase refers to "the use of the thumb for rough measurements"--which is what I had always assumed.
Michael Landonn History Dept Univ of MS
This case was reported in one of the issues in 1989 (?) of Lawyers Weekly.
Editor's Note: See Bertram Wyatt-Brown, *Southern Honor* who explains that under English common law a man could beat his wife with a stick so long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb. The subscriber writing the second message above did not sign his or her posting.
>>> Item number 365, dated 93/12/10 14:58:22 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 1993 14:58:22 -0600 Reply-To: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> Sender: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> From: email@example.com Subject: Re: Rule of Thumb "Rule of thumb" appears briefly in Thurman v. City of Torrington,
595 F.Supp. 1521, 1528 (D. Conn. 1984) ("In our own country a husband was permitted to beat his wife so long as he didn't use a switch any bigger around than his thumb. . . ." The origin of that "rule" does not appear, but the court does cite to a couple secondary authorities that might help.
James Mooney Office: (503) 346-3855 University of Oregon FAX: (503) 346-1564 Law School Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eugene, OR 97403
>>> Item number 604, dated 94/04/22 08:58:16 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 22 Apr 1994 08:58:16 -0500 Reply-To: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> Sender: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> From: email@example.com Subject: Rule of Thumb Redux Last December From: D.K. Johnston, Department of Philosophy and
Classics, University of Regina requested a reference for the story that the phrase "Rule of thumb" originates from a legal principle regulating wife-beating. Jim Mooney, University of Oregon, provided this citation: Thurman v. City of Torrington, 595 F.Supp. 1521, 1528 (D. Conn. 1984) ("In our own country a husband was permitted to beat his wife so long as he didn't use a switch any bigger around than his thumb. . . ."
Recently, while thumbing through the H-Albion logs, I came across a discussion on that list on the same topic. Their discussion began when a female student complained that the term "rule of thumb" should not be used in conversation because it demeaned women. They seem to have decided that the "rule of thumb" rule is a myth. Susan Mumm cites Frances Power Cobbe, "Wife Torture in England," 1878, as saying this myth arose in the working class.
I will post excerpts from the H-Albion discussion for those interested.
>>> Item number 605, dated 94/04/22 09:06:57 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 22 Apr 1994 09:06:57 -0500 Reply-To: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> Sender: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> From: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Rule of Thumb on H-Albion
A student, name deleted above, recently sent me the following message after I us "rule of thumb" in class. The Oxford English Dictionary makes no reference to th the term. Having used the term for many years with no complaints, I wonder if a provide me with solid evidence as to the origins of what is now common usage? I came from Victorian England since the OED quotes the use of the term from "She S Conquer" (1697). Just curious.
1007 W. Harrison St. | FAX : 312/996-5104 Chicago, IL 60607-7140 | BITNET : u08239@UICVM
It was always my impression that "rule of thumb" referred to the king's thumb, t which equalled one inch. Much older than the "stick no thicker than" rule. I t is mistaken.
As to the origin of 'rule of thumb', I do not know the origin of the term for ce your student has said it to be, -- but I can tell you your student is not alone the origin of the term. While I have not read the literature regarding the rule common law in victorian england I do know that 'the rule of thumb' has been cite women's studies articles and that a couple months back there was a note on the w e-mail discussion list from a researcher checking this story because although ma it she was having difficulty tracking down the exact origin to an original sourc impression I got from the exchange was that while the term may or may not have a a common law indicating the size of a stick with which a man could beat his wife probably did not), the belief that it did is not uncommon and that at least some (particuallarly in the field of women's studies) believe it did. In other word academic legend, but it would be hard to prove either way. You may want to avoi in the future if you want to avoid offending the occational student who's heard besides avoiding the term means you don't have to deal with the whole issue.
Brewer's Phrase & Fable seems to suggest that "Rule of Thumb" comes from the old measurements based on human anatomy (foot, span, hand, etc.) and mentions "sixte make a yard" - i.e. 16 thumb-nails. I remember my grandfather in Devon, a builde regularly measuring "by thumb" - being the distance from the tip of the thumb to his knuckle - equal to 1 inch.
However, may it not go back to Roman times when the "Rule of thumb" decided the vanquished gladiator by hiding the thumb (police compresso favor judicabatur) or thumb.
Marion Diamond med@LINGUA.CLTR.UQ.OZ.AU
I had heard that the "rule of thumb" was from colonial America. It was to keep disciplining their wives within reasonable bounds.
However, I don't know that it has a negative connotation for most women. I know origins are, but the meaning has changed so much over time that I don't have a p people using it.
DeAnna Bueckert University of Texas at Austin email@example.com
I thought the one-inch measurement came from the distance between the tip to t
of the thumb.
And I too heard of the "rule of thumb" stemming from the diameter of the rod u one's wife, but my impression was that it was considerably older than Victorian.
It never occurred to me there might be a quiz on the subject, so I didn't make a source.
Richard III Society
Brewer's DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE (a Victorian publication original says, what I have always assumed, that the term originated in "allusion to the u for rough measurements"--Centenary edn., p. 1080.
Frances Power Cobbe (in her "Wife-Torture in England", 1878) says that the ide common law permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick the circumference of hi incorrect. According to her, it was a myth most often found among the 'most igno brutal' of the working class. Interesting that we have attributed to the Victori they themselves generally rejected.
Susan Mumm, History, York U, Toronto
Does this term not occur in William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of Eng is this just folklore?
Pine Manor College
The rule of thumb thread has yet to address an important point. It began, note from a student who was offended by the use of the term because of its (supp connotations.
Though the point may seem somewhat heretical to a set of historians, it is historical accuracy of the connotations is very important.
I offer a parallel: People with handicaps were said to object to the term of its (supposed) derivation from something like `cap in hand', implying supplic subordination. Anyone with any interest in the matter could look it up in the OE its origins (though obscure after several readings of the explanation) were tota
My point is that the offence is real, regardless of the historical facts. un-nerving.
James G. Carrier
29, University Circle / Charlottesville, Virginia, 22903 (804) 971-2983 / firstname.lastname@example.org
I agree entirely. There are those who will find a way to be offended by whateve & the facts be damned ....with the rest of us.
Alison Coudert in her article "The Myth of the Improved Status of Protestant Wom Case of the Witchcraze" makes reference to the prevalence of woman/wife-beating NOT to the "rule of thumb"; e.g. "The common law of Beauvais, for example, allow to beat his wife "when she refuses her husband anything." A law of Bergerac per husband to draw blood. . . . English law on wife-beating was more subtle. It w husband to beat his wife unconscious, but not to the point at which her inert bo that she was in shock and possibly dying. Wife-beating was so common in sixteen London that civic regulations forbade it after nine in the evening because of th Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe_, ed. Brink, Coudert & Horowitz (Kirks 16th C. Journal Publishers, 1989), 74.
Re Blackstone on wife beating, I cannot find any reference in the COMMENTARIES t rule of thumb." At the very end of vol. I,chap. 15, he notes that at common law prohibited to use any violence to his wife, aliter quam ad virium, ex causa regi castigationis uxoris suae, licete et rationabiliter pertinet." He goes on to no reign of Charles the second, this power of correction began to be doubted: and a have security of the peace against her husband. Yet the lower rank of people, wh fond of the old common law, still claim and exert their antient privilege: and t will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehaviour."
>>> Item number 607, dated 94/04/22 22:05:12 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 22 Apr 1994 22:05:12 -0500 Reply-To: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> Sender: Legal History discussion list <H-LAW@UICVM.BITNET> From: email@example.com Subject: "rule of thumb"
From: IN%"U28330@UICVM.BITNET" "Burton J. Bledstein " 22-APR-1994 20:34:10.
Curious how the controversy of ideas begins with innocent words. A professor of sociology at our campus dropped the phrase "rule of thumb" in lecture, and a student responded with the following note: "ARE YOU AWARE THAT THE PHRASE 'RULE OF THUMB' HOLDS A NEGATIVE CONNOTATION FOR ALL BUT A FEW UNUSUAL WOMEN? THE PHRASE ORIGINATED IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND AND MEANT THAT A MAN WAS ALLOWED TO BEAT HIS SPOUSE WITH A STICK POSSESSING A DIAMETER NO LARGER THAN THAT OF HIS THUMB (TO KEEP HOMICIDE RATES AT AN ACCEPTABLE LEVEL). YOU MIGHT WANT TO RETHINK THE USE OF THIS TERM." Baffled and challenged by an alleged verbal alliance with wife beating, he went on-line requesting enlightenment.
In light of Catharine MacKinnon's recent essay, Only Words [Harvard 1993], the misogynist male digit under assault could not be disregarded. The oppositional thumb, after all, is what distinguishes us in part from lower animals. Would we have to amputate the commonplace "rule of thumb" from our discourse? There does appear to have been an English law to this effect, but the exact reference remains obscure. Following is my two-part contribution to the earthy discussion:
First appearing in the late 17th century, the English (artisan) phrase "rule of thumb" meant procedure derived from practice and experiences in contrast to any basis in scientific knowledge or theory. The latter was increasingly being invoked by the developing "learned professions." Practical methods or measuring approximately by "rule of thumb" implied popular, empirical, common, and vulgar.
Indeed, Grose included the phrase in his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: "By rule of thumb; to do any thing by dint of practice. To kiss one's thumb instead of the book; a vulgar expedient to avoid perjury in taking a false oath." The oath requirement of Anglicans in Grose's day was a serious obstacle to participating in society, including holding public office or attending university. (Disraeli converted in order to take the oath and pursue a political career.) Acting by rule of thumb assured the low-class cheat a prominent place in Grose's burlesque of criminal talk and ruse.
The phrase proliferated in the 19th century in plebeian sporting language and gambling calculations, separating "rough and ready" working methods of ordinary practice from book and educated procedures.
Historically the origin of the phrase rule of thumb in English law never appears to have gained currency. Indeed, origins matter little compared to usage over time. Not one example of the usage of these words in reference to wife-beating has been documented in the familiar historical reference works. To invoke an historical meaning that never was in a latter day setting smacks of polemics, and in the case of our student, an irrelevancy. Moreover, to be distracted so is to miss the actual expressive uses, including misogynist ones, of that key tool of power, the thumb. The thumb is, after all, our most eloquent digit and the key word in "rule of thumb."
In common parlance in the 17th century cloth trades a thumb's breadth meant approximately the measure of one inch. Set apart by its dexterity, in opposition to the other limbs, the thumb talked about power, coordination, and accomplishment. THUMBS UP, THUMBS DOWN for acceptance or rejection; a GOLDEN THUMB meaning a lucrative trade and alleged dishonesty, UNDER THE THUMB indicating subservience, to THUMB ONE'S NOSE AT for scorn, to STICK OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB, to be ALL THUMBS or a GREEN THUMB, and so on. An appropriate response to the UIC student would be to go TWIDDLE HIS THUMBS, professional deportment not-with-standing.
This verbal apparatus of body power could be expected to extend to the slang of sexual power. From the 1700s TO THUMB was to coit a woman [feel, grope], the THUMB OF LOVE was a euphemism for the penis in the 1800s. A WELL-THUMBED [girl] was a whore. If this conversation is getting too rough, well "rule of thumb" was defined by 19th c. word masters as just that, a "rough and ready" relationship to experience.
In conclusion, let's get our references and meanings approximately correct before it is suggested in the name of political correctness that we dismember this adversarial appendage from our thoughts.
Burton J. Bledstein
University of Illinois Chicago