"rule of thumb" revisited

Karl Hagen karl at POLYSYLLABIC.COM
Mon Dec 11 00:50:00 UTC 2006

I note that site doesn't mention a detailed unpacking of the phrase and
the (soi-disant) legal tradition:

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's
Stick." Journal of Legal Education.  September 1994.

Kelly notes that the wood-worker explanation is just speculation, and
has no way of really being confirmed.

Cohen, Gerald Leonard wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Cohen, Gerald Leonard" <gcohen at UMR.EDU>
> Subject:      "rule of thumb" revisited
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>      A while back there was an ads-l discussion about the possible rationale for "rule of thumb." I just noticed a website which discusses this issue, including the incorrect interpretation that a man with a cheating wife was permitted to beat her if the rod used for this punishment was no thicker than a thumb. See http://www.debunker.com/texts/ruleofthumb.html
>      Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from that website:
>         "According to Canadian folklorist Philip Hiscock, "The real explanation of 'rule of thumb' is that it derives from wood workers... who knew their trade so well they rarely or never fell back on the use of such things as rulers. Instead, they would measure things by, for example, the length of their thumbs." Hiscock adds that the phrase came into metaphorical use by the late seventeenth century. Hiscock could not track the source of the idea that the term derives from a principle governing wife beating, but he believes it is an example of 'modern folklore' and compares it to other 'back-formed explanations.' such as the claim asparagus comes from 'sparrow-grass'...."
> Gerald Cohen
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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