Date: Fri, 7 Nov 1997 23:06:03 -0500 From: Gregory {Greg} Downing Subject: Re: Rima's rule of thumb At 03:25 PM 11/7/97 -0500, you wrote: >I hardly think the wife beating story is a fallacy! >I have read in several publications that the "rule of >thumb" originates from an English common law dictating the width of a >strap a husband could use to discipline his wife. The husband would use >his thumb as a rule to measure the width of the strap, hence the expression. >I have to question the validity of the beer story as a "rule of thumb". The >purpose of testing the heat has nothing to do with the thumb really. No >more than testing a baby's bottle could be called the "rule of wrist". >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"!!! > This is dueling folk-etymologies. I've read somewhere some analysis of the beating-stick idea, something along the lines that in no legal record or law case has anyone ever found one reference to such a rule, and how could there be a legal rule that is never recorded in any legal code or mentioned in a recorded law-case? Common law is especially long-lived and thus prone to leaving traces in records. If such a law existed, there'd be have been tons of court-cases hinging on the issue of whether a given beating was or was not inflicted with a stick of the legally allowed size. But without being an expert on this bit of lore, all I can add is that if you read the OED2 cites of "rule of thumb" (back to 1692) there's no mention of or hints at beating anywhere. There is however almost always a sense that "rule of thumb" means something inexact -- hardly the sense of the word in the "beating" account, where the "rule of thumb" refers to the exact size something can legally be. I have heard accounts that tie "rule of thumb" to sailing (measuring the needed thickness of a rope for a given task when as a sailor you have no ruler) and tailoring (using the width of the thumb to measure without a ruler or the like -- get it? *rule* of thumb.... Cf. OED2 rock n.3, meaning 1b, where "rock/rack of eye and rule of thumb" is a tailors' phrase for inexact measurement). If anyone has the *real* story and the evidence, maybe s/he'd cough it up. The stick-story seems to have the same kind of origin as "history" = "his story," which means it says a lot about our cultural interests and guilts in the later 20C, but nothing at all about the actual origin of the phrase, which is the topic at hand in real etymology. Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] or downingg[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]