[Ads-l] "Oppressive Language List"

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 27 16:27:22 EDT 2021

A quick note on this with the caveat that I am not stipulating that "the
rule of thumb" has anything to do with wife-beating.

Pat's very fine analysis of the idiom (see
https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/04/rule-of-thumb.html) mentions:

"Nobody connected thumbs with chastisement until 1782, when an English
judge, Francis Buller, supposedly ruled that a husband could beat his wife
if the rod or stick were no thicker than his thumb."

It bears noting, though, that the Welsh (ca. 1000) did have a sort of "rule
of middle finger," which established that (among other things) a husband
could "take revenge for his wife's behaviour by striking her three times
with a rod as long as a man's forearm and as thick as his middle finger on
any part of the body except the head." At least that's what scholars of
medieval Wales tell us about what's codified in the Welsh Law of Women.
(This is mentioned on p. 52 of _The Welsh Law of Women_, edited by Dafydd
Jenkins and Morfydd E. Owen [Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1980]. I
posted about this back in 2011, but can't find it in the list archives.)

Further, as others elsewhere have pointed out, in 1711 Swift, writing of
something he claimed had transpired at least three decades earlier, alluded
to specifications for how to moderately correct one's wife with a small

"Dr. Marmaduke Coghil was judge of the prerogative court in Ireland. About
this time he courted a lady, and was soon to have been married to her; but
unfortunately a cause was brought to trial before him, wherein a man was
sued for beating his wife. When the matter was agitated, the Dr. gave his
opinion. That although a man had no right to beat his wife unmercifully,
yet that, with such a little cane or switch as he then held in his hand, a
husband was at liberty, and was invested with a power to give his wife
moderate correction: which opinion determined the lady against having the
doctor." (From Dr. Swift's Journal to Stella.)

Swift's description of Dr. Marmaduke Coghil's stick requirement -- "such a
little cane or switch as he then held in his hand" -- may have been of some
similar proportion to that which was described in old Welsh law (a stick no
thicker than a man’s middle finger and no longer than his forearm).

And even then the Welsh husband could hit his errant wife no more than
three times and never on the head. (And even if the Coghil anecdote were
fabricated, Swift's inclusion of it shows that he was at least familiar
with this way of thinking.)

So, *something* about small sticks and references to digits and when one
could rap the missus seems to have circulated among the common folk before
Buller (and Blackstone, 1765).

But, of course, none of that has to do with the origin of the idiom.

-- Bonnie

On Sun, Jun 27, 2021 at 12:10 PM Mailbox <mailbox at grammarphobia.com> wrote:

OK, one comment. Included is “rule of thumb” (
> https://www.brandeis.edu/parc/accountability/oppressivelanguagelist_violent.html
> <
> https://www.brandeis.edu/parc/accountability/oppressivelanguagelist_violent.html>)
> which has been vilified as politically incorrect since the mid-1970s, when
> it was said to have originated as a legal term for what was allowed in
> wife-beating. This is a persistent myth; “rule of “thumb” had no such
> origin and there never was such a law. My husband and I wrote about this
> years ago on our blog:
> https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/04/rule-of-thumb.html <
> https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/04/rule-of-thumb.html>
> It’s too bad that a university would help perpetuate such misconceptions.
> More, for anyone who’s interested: Kelly, Henry Ansgar. “‘Rule of Thumb’
> and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick.” Journal of Legal Education, vol.
> 44, no. 3, 1994, pp. 341–365. JSTOR,
> www.jstor.org/stable/42893341 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/42893341>
> Pat O'Conner

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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