Date: Fri, 4 Apr 1997 16:48:38 -0600
From: jack haines z932275[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]RICE.FARM.NIU.EDU
Subject: Rule of Thumb

Does anybody know where the expression "Rule of Thumb" comes from? I was
talking with a Math Professor who was telling me about an article he had
just read. The author of the article stated that Rule of Thumb is a
sexist/insensitive phrase because it refers to an old law that said it is
alright to beat your wife, so long as the diameter of the rod used is no
greater than that of your thumb. I have heard that etymology (is this
etymology or is it etiology?) before, but I've never really investigated it.

The guy suspects "folk etymology" (eti/ym-whatever) to be afoot. I can't
say that I disagree with him. I dont want to cast aspersions but it seems
unlikely that a person who would beat another person would take the time to
measure the diameter of their weapon. Ya' know, just to make sure that
everything was fair and square. I understand the flip side of the issue--
it gives the courts something to measure against but as a law it seems kind
of subjective or open to a lot of variation.

Let us suppose that the wife-beating etymology is true. What do we, as
speakers of a language, do with phrases or colloquialisms that might have
dark pasts? Do we kick them out of the language and change the locks? Do we
kick out every one of them, or just the ones that offend my sensibilities?

Any suggestions or comments?

Jack Haines
Northern Illinois University
Graduate Student