Date: Fri, 7 Nov 1997 16:02:27 -0500 From: Jesse T Sheidlower 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 > story"!!! 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