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Rule of Thumb

November 21, 2009

I was wondering where the expression “rule of thumb” came from. To put it more grammatically, I was wondering from where the expression “rule of thumb” came. Or – I was wondering, Whence the expression “rule of thumb”? But since I’m neither a Balto-Slavic immigrant nor a medieval essayist, we’ll go with the first wording, okay?

Naturally, in my time of need, I turned to the world’s #1 source of accurate information: the internet. Here’s what I learned: for many hundreds of years, by far the most popular explanation of the expression’s origin has been that there was once a British law that beating one’s wife was legal, provided that the instrument used in the beating did not exceed the width of one’s thumb.

This explanation can be traced back to the 16th century. As it happens, it’s a totally unsubstantiated folk etiology. There was never any such law. Ouk est’ etumos houtos logos.

But if you ask me – and by tuning in to this blog you implicitly are – what’s interesting here isn’t whether the wife-beating story is true or false, but that for hundreds of years, all over the English-speaking world, it has been perfectly believable.

Something tells me I’ll be watching Kill Bill this weekend, for the 4000th time. Because roaring rampages of revenge are a logistical nightmare in real life.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Apar permalink
    November 25, 2009 12:38 pm

    The legend of the genus of “rule of thumb” has nothing on my explanation of how the word “kaibosh” (sp?) came to be.

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