Date: Sun, 6 Apr 1997 09:08:55 -0400
From: Alan Baragona baragonasa[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]VAX.VMI.EDU
Subject: Re: Rule of Thumb

I've never believed this etymology, and I think your objections are sound.
The other source I've heard most often is sewing: you can estimate a yard by
stretching cloth over your extended arm and measuring from thumb to
shoulder. I don't know if this is any more convincing, but it is certainly
a more likely explanation than the thickness of a rod.

As for your final question, I think unless there is something in the surface
form of a word or phrase that still suggests a "dark" etymology, the usage
has no psychological significance for the users and is harmless. If,
however, its current associations are disturbing or potentially offensive,
I'd be personally reluctant to use it, though I don't believe in
"legislating" the language of others.

Alan B.

At 04:48 PM 4/4/97 -0600, jack haines wrote:
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

Alan Baragona

You know, years ago, my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this
world, Elwood, you must be . . ."--she always called me 'Elwood'--"In this
world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant." Well, for
years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me.

Elwood P. Dowd