Date: Fri, 7 Nov 1997 16:02:27 -0500

From: Jesse T Sheidlower jester[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PANIX.COM

Subject: Re: Rima's rule of thumb

Rebecca Greenhill wrote:

I hardly think the wife beating story is a fallacy!


Granted, the popularity of the wife beating story doesn't mean it is

true but it is more believable than the "fingering the yeast


Leaving aside the question of whether there's ever been a law saying

that a man could beat his wife with a (strap, stick, etc.) as long

as said implement is narrower than his thumb, there's a very good

reason why it's not believable. The expression "rule of thumb" does

not refer to a law or right; it means 'a rough practical method or

procedure'. Any of various stories that are supposed to be the origin

of this expression--including the beer-temperature story, details

of which have been circulating as an E-mail virus for about a year or

so--that refer to rough measurements are therefore considerably more

believable than any law about wife-beating.

To return now to the question of whether there's ever been a law

about wife-beating-implement-thicknesses, the answer is no, but

there is substanial evidence for a _belief_ that such a law existed.

A well-known English jurist in the late eighteenth century once

suggested that such a practice should be allowed, and several

English and American court cases record a belief that there was such

a law.

The association of this supposed law with the phrase "rule of thumb"

apparently comes from a misreading of a 1976 NOW paper; the paper

referred ironically to the wife-beating practice as a rule of thumb,

but did not suggest an etymological connection.

Interested readers are referred to Henry Ansgar Kelly, "Rule of Thumb

and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick," _Journal of Legal Education,_

September 1994, which discusses the issue in detail.

Jesse Sheidlower