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
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.
jester[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]panix.com