The Misunderstood 'Rule of Thumb' Misconception: For years many feminists thought that the term 'rule of thumb' referred to the British common law tolerance of hitting women. (2023)

Sharon Fenick first heard the phrase "rule of thumb" being cited as sexist derogatory terms during her freshman year at Harvard seven years ago.

The phrase was cited in a lecture as an example of domestic violence permitted under British common law. The rule of thumb, the professor said, was a law that allowed a man to hit his wife as long as the stick used was no thicker than his thumb. But over the centuries, the term had become a slang term for an "approximate measure."


"It sounded very believable to me," says 24-year-old Fenick, who is now in her third year at the University of Chicago. "It was my first exposure to feminist thinking and [the statement] was very impressive to me. It was one of those things that I really remember that got around. I can't remember when I found out it wasn't true."

Unlike Fenick, countless historians, feminists, and legal experts are unaware that the folk etymology for "rules of thumb" is wrong. To them, the notion of a "rule of thumb" makes perfect sense given that it supposedly comes from a legal system they see as misogynistic.


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In January, wordsmith William Safire debunked the incorrect etymology of "rule of thumb" in his New York Times Magazine column. The president of George Washington University had drawn his attention to the sentence where a student had denounced its use by an administrator who had commented on budget problems in the student newspaper.

In gender and women's studies courses across the country, the phrase is still cited as an example of unconscious acceptance and condoning of sexist politics. A computer search for the use of "rule of thumb" and "wife" in the same newspaper sentence reveals many letters to the editor in recent years from women upset by the casual appearance of the phrase in news articles. In a televised domestic violence news analysis in 1994, even commentator Cokie Roberts noted the misunderstanding.

The false etymology persists despite the Oxford English Dictionary's definition: "A method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience, without any basis in scientific knowledge; an approximately practical method." The OED dates the first mention of the phrase to 1692.

The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins additionally defines "rule of thumb" as a method brewers once used to test the temperature of a batch of beer: they dipped a thumb into the brew.

During her freshman year of law school, Fenick, a wordsmith herself, was determined to unravel the history of the "rule of thumb." Does the sentence come from a specific rule? Was there such a rule? Even if there wasn't a rule, did a notorious judge's ruling establish "thumbstick" guidelines for would-be wife-beaters?

She discovered that while "rules of thumb" were not recognized law, there was ample evidence that the British legal system, and the American legal system that inspired it, was unkind to women. "I found that in the 19th century [women's beating] was really a topic worth discussing," she says.

Wife hitting is recognized in Blackstone's "Comments," and many court decisions sanctioned the practice. But whether the "rule of thumb" was accepted as law was another matter.

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Fenick traced the earliest possible reference to the 17th century when a certain Dr. Marmaduke Coghill, an Irish judge, held that a man who had hit his wife "with a rod like the one he held in his hand" was within his marital privilege.

In the 18th century, a judge named Francis Buller, nicknamed "Judge Thumb" by the famous cartoonist James Gillray, is said to have allowed a man to hit his wife as long as the punishment stick was no thicker than his thumb. (A witty countess is said to have asked the judge to measure her husband's thumb so she could know the exact extent of his privilege.)

Fenick also found three cases from 19th-century America that mentioned the "rule of thumb", including an 1868 ruling in North Carolina that "the defendant had the right to strike his wife with a rod no larger than his thumb was".

Buller's "thumbstick" opinion and the three American judgments Fenick found were intriguing - and damning - but did not constitute definitive proof that the rule of thumb was derived from British common law.

When Fenick, encouraged by a law professor, considered publishing her findings, she found that Henry Ansgar Kelly, an English professor at the University of California, had forestalled her. His Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick appeared in the Journal of Legal Education in September 1994.

Kelly had covered the same territory as her, much to Fenick's disappointment. (Though she proudly notes that his article missed the earliest reference to Coghill's "rule of thumb.") Three and a half years later, Safire relied entirely on Kelly's article to support his arguments in his column.

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However, Fenick's efforts were not in vain. In response to a request from a correspondent for the alt.folkore.urban newsgroup, which links to the Urban Legends website, Fenick published her article where it is now part of the site's permanent archive. Since its inception, the site has broadened its mission from studying the origins and dissemination of urban legends to “confirming or refuting beliefs and facts of all kinds, including the origin of vernacular”.


"Rules of thumb" and other idioms can function similarly to urban legends: they can appear mysterious, spread spontaneously, and contain elements of humor or horror. And like urban legends, an idiom can contain a grain of emotional, if not factual, truth.

So, at first, it was easy for Fenick and others to believe that the "rule of thumb" was grounded in common law. Patricia A. Turner, a folklorist at the University of California, Davis, understands very well how a lie can take on the mantle of truth.

In I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, Turner examines the ways in which claims of enforced birth control, corporate collusion with the Ku Klux Klan, drug targeting in urban areas, and other anti-Black conspiracy theories have been perpetuated in the Circulating the African American community are based on racial realities and serve as a form of resistance to white oppression.

The same theory can be applied to the rule of thumb, Turner says. A text may turn out to be inaccurate or wrong, but "if it reflects a deeper truth in society, it doesn't go away." The term "rule of thumb" may not "have this specific etymological origin, but men have dominated women in the workplace and at home and in virtually every setting. It speaks to a deeper truth."

Women's history students who may want to explore apocryphal ideas are also at a disadvantage because they "don't have the paper trail that more mainstream areas of the academic discipline have," Turner says. "Sometimes it's harder to get to the bottom of something."


However, Turner concedes that it is "very sloppy for an academic to relay misinformation." Once a theory like the inaccurate story of the "rule of thumb" is debunked, it can backfire on its proponents, she says. "If someone has read it and knows it's wrong, everything is discredited at that level. So, on the basis of a single falsehood, an entire story can be questioned.”


Concerned scholars and social critics say this happened when Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? How Women have Betrayed Women” disproved the “rule of thumb”. Sommers finds the earliest misuse of the phrase in a 1976 report by the National Organization for Women and uses it to support her arguments against domestic violence statistics.

Feminist eagerness to brandish the "rule of thumb" to justify their crusade, Turner suggests, may have inadvertently provided Sommers and her sympathizers with ideal ammunition to discredit the same cause.

Fenick received a nice letter from Kelly, who told RTC of her research after the Safire article ran. She has written him back and hopes to hear what he thinks of her Coghill reference soon.

Release date: 4/17/98


What is the actual meaning of rule of thumb? ›

Meaning. A means of estimation made according to a rough and ready practical rule, not based on science or exact measurement. Origin. This has been said to derive from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it is was no thicker than his thumb.

What is the rule of thumb and the folklaw of the husband's stick? ›

There is a widespread belief that the phrase rule of thumb has its origins in an old legal doctrine that says a husband has the right to beat his wife so long as the weapon used is no thicker than a person's thumb. Such a belief, to use the coinage of Henry Ansgar Kelly, is folklaw.

What is the rule of thumb cane? ›

A commonly heard alternative, however, states the 'rule of thumb' was the creation of 18th-century English judge, Sir Francis Buller. He ruled (supposedly) that a man is legally permitted to beat his wife, provided he uses a stick no thicker than his thumb.

Is it OK to say rule of thumb? ›

Contrary to the old myth now widely repeated on the web, rule of thumb's origins have nothing to do with wife-beating, so the idiom is not inherently offensive (though the fact that some people think it is offensive might be cause to use it with caution).

Why did he call it a rule of thumb? ›

In the 1400's a law was adopted in England that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence, we have “the rule of thumb.”

Why is the rule of thumb important? ›

A thumb rule is a guideline which provides concise advice on a given subject. It is a general concept that offers specific guidance for executing or approaching a given task. Thumb rules usually evolve as a result of practice and experience rather than a theoretical study.

How do you use the rule of thumb? ›

The phrase 'Rule of Thumb' is used to describe a useful principle that has wide application, but that's not necessarily reliable in all situations. Example of Use: “As a rule of thumb, we meet on Fridays.”

What are the three rules of thumb? ›

Here are three rules of thumb for back-of-the-envelope estimates: Duff's rule: Pi seconds is a nanocentury. Hopper's rule: Light travels one foot in a nanosecond. Rule of 72: An investment at n% interest will double in 72/n years.

Can you whip your wife in Alabama? ›

Finally, in 1871, Alabama became the first state to rescind the legal right of men to beat their wives. Massachusetts also declared wife beating illegal.

How do I choose a walking stick? ›

Measure from the floor to the wrist bone of the arm you would normally use with the stick. Alternatively if you are cutting down a wooden stick then turn the stick upside down and measure on the stick where the wrist bone is. This measurement is the ideal height of walking stick for this user.

How is rule of thumb unscientific? ›

Rule of thumb is not based on science or exact measurement. Scientific method is based on cause and effect, whereas rule of thumb was based solely on the discretion of managerial decisions. Taylor focused that managers should scientifically analyze each and every component of work.

What is an example of a common rule of thumb? ›

A rule of thumb is a guideline, idea, or principle that helps you make decisions. "Arrive early" is a good rule of thumb for most appointments. This term originally referred to builders who used their thumb to estimate measurements.

Can you go to jail for cheating on your spouse in Alabama? ›

Alabama Does Not Punish Adultery as a Crime

Accordingly, Alabama, like every other state, no longer punishes the crime of adultery. Regardless of whether you are cohabitating, separated, married, annulled, divorcing or divorced, you will not be arrested or criminally penalized for adultery.

Is sexting a crime in Alabama? ›

Alabama is one of the states that does not have a teen sexting law. As a result, teens and minors who send or receive sext messages can face harsh penalties under the state's child pornography and obscenity laws.

Can you sue someone for breaking up a marriage in Alabama? ›

It's called alienation of affection.

How tall should a walking staff be? ›

Here's a good rule on sizing: Standing with your arms at your side, the stick should be about 6 or 8 inches taller than your elbow. Pick a longer stick if you'll be tackling steep terrain. If you're really just planning on walking with your stick, a shorter one will do.

Can a walking stick be considered a weapon? ›

Many walking sticks look harmless on their exterior, yet hold a harmful - or even lethal - concealed weapon within them. With street crime rising in the mid-19th century, deadly weapon canes grew in popularity as a way to protect oneself in the case of being threatened or accosted.

Can a walking stick hurt a human? ›

Can a Walking Stick Cause Injury? Though walking sticks are not known to bite, some walking stick species, for instance, the American stick insect (Anisomorpha buprestoides), found in the southeastern United States, can spray a milky kind of acidic compound from glands on the back of its thorax.

What can I say instead of rule of thumb? ›

“I want to suggest that this is in fact a rather useful rule of thumb for linguists and philologists.”
What is another word for rule of thumb?
codeunwritten rule
ground rulestandard procedure
101 more rows

What are examples of rule of thumb? ›

Example Sentences

As a rule of thumb, I do not start a new project on Fridays. A good rule of thumb is to add the ingredients when the water starts to boil. During our boot camp in the jungle, we used to drink a glass of water every two hours as a rule of thumb.

What factors are used in the rule of thumb methods? ›

What factors are used in the rule-of-thumb methods to determine the communication budget? Rule-of-thumb methods use prior sales and communication activities to determine the present communication budget. These methods are easy to implement but do have various limitations.


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