Nerdful Things – Idioms – Rule of Thumb
I find the origins of idioms fascinating. Some of them either haven’t aged well or they’ve always sounded daft. Others, well, their origins or potential origins are from a much darker and sinister background that the decades have diluted so we say the phrases in such a throwaway manner that, when we learn of the origins, we become somewhat shocked/appalled.
I was inspired by a friend’s Facebook post referencing this one. I remember learning of the origin (although it’s up for debate as to whether it is indeed the origin or not) of the phrase “rule of thumb”.
I say it. A lot. Especially in my job. For those who don’t know what it means or haven’t heard of it, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination. It is based not on theory but on practical experience. Compare this to heuristic, a similar concept used in mathematical discourse, psychology, and computer science, particularly in algorithm design.
The more obvious and logical origin is that the length from the tip of your thumb to the first knuckle (the tip of their thumb) is approximately an inch. From a labourer or craftsman’s perspective, a rule of thumb is their estimation in terms of measurement. ‘Rule’ being the operating word in terms of measurement – think of rulers and their use to measure centimetres and inches. It’s not the only concept of a body part being used to measure something – distance/height is measured in feet and horses are measured in hands.
The second and, more interesting/shocking origin, is that of the legal variety. Here’s what Wikipedia says:
It is often claimed that the term rule of thumb is derived from a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife. English common law before the reign of Charles II permitted a man to give his wife “moderate correction”, but no “rule of thumb” (whether called by this name or not) has ever been the law in England.[d]
Belief in the existence of a “rule of thumb” to excuse spousal abuse can be traced as far back as 1782, the year that James Gillray published his satirical cartoon Judge Thumb. The cartoon lambastes English judge Sir Francis Buller for allegedly ruling that a man may legally beat his wife provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb, although there is no other written record of Buller making such a pronouncement.
In the United States, where the “rule of thumb” was mentioned in case law, it was usually to reject it as a legal standard.Legal decisions in Mississippi (1824) and North Carolina (1868 and 1874) make reference to—and reject—an unnamed “old doctrine” or “ancient law” by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb.[e][f] In 1976, women’s rights activist Del Martin used the phrase “rule of thumb” as a metaphorical reference to describe such a doctrine. She was interpreted by many[Like whom?] as claiming the doctrine as a direct origin of the phrase, and the connection gained currency in 1982, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on wife abuse titled “Under the Rule of Thumb”.
Despite no such law – and we do have some bizarre laws such as the legality of shooting a Scotsman in York only if he is carrying a bow and arrow (there goes my idea of cosplaying as ) – having been committed to record and an olden day equivalent of a ‘funny paper’, it does seem plausible that this is the true origin.
Even now, equality is not exactly where it should be, but history tells of bleaker times to the fairer members of our species. Women couldn’t vote. They had no place in society aside from menial chores and labour and, of course, their vital duty in procreation. Is it hard to believe that a judge (a role held only by males back then) would rule that a man may ‘correct’ his wife or significant other via physical means?
I do not condone physical violence towards anyone let alone women but, in an equal world there’d be those that would ask why should women not be hit by someone of the opposite sex as male on male violence is somewhat biased and sexist. Similar to the argument that the #AllLivesMatter folks have with the #BlackLivesMatter camps. That being said, there are still more horrifying ways in which women are treated than the suggested punishment this implies.
Despite my beliefs of the true origin, my attitude towards the phrase remain unchanged. Unlike Hollywood’s response to the likes of Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, I don’t think it’s a term that should be erased from our vernacular. If we started doing that we would have no words left – bear in mind, when laws/rules/common decencies were more primitive or non-existent, those who conjured up these words would probably have ran afoul of some sort of modern-day taboo. Rape, incest, paedophilia and whatever else would literally plunder our diction.
There could, however, be a more a more prominent and feasible use for the term considering these uncertain times. Obviously not an origin but more of an evolution of the phrase where humankind stands on the brink of being blinked out of existence. War. War never changes but the uses of our thumbs could. For fans of the game series, the cheeky wee blond chappie seemingly giving you a wink and a thumbs up of approval is doing anything but.
A closer look at ‘‘ shows he’s closing his left eye, and looking at his thumb with his right. The reason for this is to see how safe he is in the face of an atomic blast. It’s not something used very often today, but if someone sees a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb, the government supposedly used to recommend the person stick their thumb out. If the blast is bigger than the person’s thumb, they are within the radiation zone and should evacuate. Another darker association to the phrase and, given the historical changes as far as women’s rights go and any subsequent future changes, this newer notion gives the phrase a new spin.
Whether people will bother to measure up against the mushroom clouds with their thumbs as opposed to succumbing to sheer panic and getting the eff outta there is another matter…may your thumbs remain radiation free and your caps be plentiful.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any other idioms or literary revelations to share?
Want more articles like this? Become a subscriber and support the site! Or you can always donate a little something on the right-hand side.
—The Trying Scotsman has a ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—