Origin(s) of "Rule of Thumb"
Queries about the phrase "rule of thumb" have appeared repeatedly on WMST-L.
What follows are some of the responses people have sent to the list
over the years. They have been put together in this file to make it
easy to find this information without sending yet more queries (and
responses) to WMST-L. For additional WMST-L files now available on
the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Tue, 11 May 1993 13:14:28 -0400
From: Philip Hiscock <philiph AT KEAN.UCS.MUN.CA>
Subject: Rule of thumb folklore
Ruth Ginzberg posted the following to LORE from Maureen Korp (originally to
the Women's Studies List):
>Does anyone know of a *RELIABLE* *primary* source for the history of
>the phrase, "Rule of Thumb?"
>The story -- often repeated in print & orally -- is this:
> The phrase "Rule of Thumb" comes from English Common
> Law which deemed it a man's right to beat his wife
> with a stick no thicker than the diameter of his thumb.
>For the last 6 or 7 years I have been looking for **RELIABLE** confirmation
>of this, and/or the earliest legal reference to this "Common Law." I have
>found MANY sources that *claim* that it stems from English Common Law, but
>searches of legal decisions (by friends who are lawyers or legal researchers)
>and/or of Blackstone, etc. never turn up any actual reference to a legal
>decision citing this "common law" or even any reference to it. I'm beginning
>to wonder if this is another Academic Myth.
>Please reply privately, and I will summarize for the list if there is interest.
>Ruth Ginzberg <rginzberg AT eagle.wesleyan.edu>
>Philosophy Department;Wesleyan University;USA
The only place I know to look for answers to such questions is the OED.
It won't state straight out that such-and-such is the case, but if you know
how to read the OED you can often figure out likelihoods.
The whip thing is a bit of modern folklore. It is typical of such back-formed
explanations well-known to linguists and folklorists. (The folk etymology
of 'asparagus' as 'sparrow-grass' and the plague interpretation of 'Ring
Around the Rosie' are two others.)
The real explanation of 'rule-of-thumb' is that is derives from wood
workers (or other constructors) who knew their trade so well they rarely
or never fell back on the use of such things as rulers. Instead they'd
measure things by, for example, the length of their thumb; they measured,
not by a rule(r) of wood, but by rule of thumb. The term was already in
metaphorical use by the late 17th century.
I'd like to see the accumulated references to the wife-beating explanation.
I wonder for instance just when that back-formed 'origin' came into being?
philiph AT kean.ucs.mun.ca
Date: Tue, 12 Oct 1993 11:14:03 CDT
From: Megan McLaughlin <MEGMCLAU AT UIUCVMD.BITNET>
Subject: Rule of Thumb
Ruth Ginzburg asked about the origins of the "rule of thumb" in the
English common law. Ruth--I don't know what the origins are, but
I suggest that you get in touch with Richard Helmholz, in the History
Dept. at Cornell Univ. He's one of (perhaps THE) leading experts in
the history of the common law, and might be able to point you in the
right direction. By the way, the "common law" is the legal system,
not a particular piece of legislation. Good luck.
Megan McLaughlin, Dept. of History, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Bitnet: megmclau AT uiucvmd
Internet: megmclau AT vmd.cso.uiuc.edu
Date: Mon, 25 Apr 1994 08:36:21 CDT
From: Stephanie Riger <U29322 AT UICVM.BITNET>
Subject: rule of thumb
A few months ago someone on this list asked for primary sources for the
"rule of thumb" referring to the size of the stick with which one could
beat one's wife (in English common law). I recently queried femjur, the
feminist jurisprudence net, on the same subject and got some responses
that hadn't appeared on wmst-l. FYI, here they are. (and FYI femjur's
address is femjur AT suvm.syr.edu)
Stephanie Riger Univ of Il at Chicago
The 1917 Law review article, "Right of Husband to Chastise Wife," 3 Virginia
Law Register 239 (1917), states the rule of thumb as the common law rule and
cites as examples two NC cases:
State v. Oliver, 70 N.C.60 & State v. Rhodes, 61 N.C. 453.
There was a discussion of this fact/factoid on soc.feminism a couple
of months ago. I remember one budding etymologist in the readership
suggesting that this story was basically apocryphal. In particular,
however, the "rule-of-thumb" meaning as allowing wife-abuse was a
"reverse formation" which occurred in the 19th century to justify an
*increased* tolerance/advocacy of wife-abuse at that time versus
earlier times. But it was projected back into the 15-16th century,
where the phrase didn't really have such a meaning. I think I was
fairly convinced by the citations the poster made for this
etymological story, but I can't remember what they were.
You might be able to find this in the soc.fem archives (I *think* it's
all archived). It was about three months ago if I remember right.
The source is Blackstone's Commentaries: one ref I have is Vol 1, 8th ed
1775 p.445 (that's from a judgment of Lord Denning of the English Court of
Appeal in Davis v Johnson  AC 264.
Date: Thu, 21 Jul 1994 12:26:48 EDT
From: LuAnn Beamer <LB9696 AT ALBANY.BITNET>
Subject: Reference for "Rule of Thumb"
I have gone around quoting the "rule of thumb": that is it used to be law
that a man could beat his wife with a switch (tree limb) no wider than the
width of his thumb. Someone has challenged me on this, and I need a reference
I can show him to quell the debate. Can anyone help? You may answer privately
or if you think others might want the reference - just reply to the listserver.
Thank you. LuAnn Beamer: LB9696 AT albanyvm1 or LB9696 AT uacsc2.albany.edu
Date: Fri, 22 Jul 1994 10:36:53 CDT
From: Stephanie Riger <U29322 AT UICVM.BITNET>
Subject: rule of thumb
Our local university net had an intense discussion on this topic a few
months ago. I asked the person who initiated that discussion, Dick
Campbell, to respond to the recent query on wmst-l. Below is his reply.
If you would like to comment on this, please send messages directly to
him at DCAMP AT uic.edu, not to me or to the wmst-l. Stephanie Riger
Stephanie Riger asked me to reply to this note because I sent her a similar
message some months back and spent a fair amount of time tracking down referenc
es etc. Here are the facts as best I can ascertain them.
The assertion that the term originates in judicial cases appears in at least
two standard works on family violence, one by E. Pleck and the other by
L. Gordon. Neither author gives a specific reference. Neither author is correct
as far as I can tell. Here is the best information that I have been able to
gather with the help of many scholars on the internet.
The term "rule of thumb" has been used to mean "rough or approximate measure"
for several hundred years. This is amply documented in the Oxford English
Dictionary and various other works. On the other hand, there are apparently
legal cases in both the United States and Great Britain in which judges estab-
lished a standard for the maximum diamater of a rod with which a man may beat
his wife. I have citations available to specific cases if anyone is
interested. I use the word "apparently" because I have not actually gone to the
law library to retrieve these cases. What is clear is that the term "rule of
thumb" does not have its origin in rulings regarding violence toward women; it
predates any legal opinions on the issue.
Below, I include a lengthy quote from a message I received which cites various
legal cases. A lawyer friend of mine is currently retrieving these various
opionions. We hope to write a brief paper that properly documents what the var-
ious judges actually said.
One last point. The practice of "caning" in English Public Schools has a long
history. I am surprised that there is not some sort of legal ruling on that
issue as well.
**************** Quoted Message Begins Here ****************
Date: Thu, 28 Apr 1994 07:11:36 -0500
Reply-To: H-NET Intellectual History List <H-IDEAS AT UICVM.BITNET>
Sender: H-NET Intellectual History List <H-IDEAS AT UICVM.BITNET>
From: "Wm. E. Painter, Jr." <wpainter AT womenscol.stephens.edu>
Subject: Lexis search - rule of thumb
X-To: H-IDEAS AT uicvm.uic.edu
To: Multiple recipients of list H-IDEAS <H-IDEAS AT UICVM.BITNET>
From: SMTP%"ktonella%pac-man.arcade.uiowa.edu AT uicvm.uic.edu" 28-APR-1994
I did a quick Lexis search for legal references on "rule of thumb" in
relation to wife beating. I didn't have time for a really refined search
but below are short relevant excerpts.
n86 The husband's right to discipline his wife has a long
history at commonlaw, related to the concept of wives as
chattel. For a review of the changing scope of the
disciplinary prerogative at common law, see UNITED STATES
COMM'N ON CIVIL RIGHTS, UNDER THE RULE OF THUMB: BATTERED
WOMEN AND THE ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE 14, 21 (1982), supra
note 41, at 1-3; Eppler, supra note 13, at 791-93; Note,
supra note 16, at 705.
34 Emory L.J. 855, *874
Historically, wife beating has been an acceptable
practice both socially and legally. The right of a husband
to physically chastise his wife was inherited from the
British Common Law tradition which considered married people
to be one person, specifically the husband, n91 and, which
gave the husband who beat his wife immunity from
prosecution. In Bradley v. State, n92 a
Mississippi court articulated and adopted this form of
immunity, holding that a husband should be able to
moderately chastise his wife without subjecting himself
to vexatious prosecution for assault and battery. Moderate
chastisement was measured by the " rule of thumb" which
allowed a husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker
than his thumb. n93 The societal basis for this legal
acceptance of wife beating may be seen in the results of a
survey conducted for [*875] the National Commission on
the Causes and Prevention ofViolence, which found that
twenty-five percent of college educated men interviewed felt
that physical chastisement of a spouse was acceptable in
some situations. n94
106 Harv. L. Rev. 1501, *1502
II. Historical Underpinnings of Wife Abuse
When you see your wife commit an offense, don't rush at
her with insults and violent blows . . . . Scold her
sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn't
work . . . take up a stick and beat her soundly, for it is
better to punish the body and correct the soul than to
damage the soul and spare the body . . . . Then readily
beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her
soul, so that the beating will redound to your merit and
her good. n4
106 Harv. L. Rev. 1501, *1501
Domestic violence is not a new problem. History is
replete with reports of domestic abuse, n11 and despite the
community-wide repercussions of domestic violence, an
adequate legal response has long been lacking. In fact,
United States law condoned wife abuse and protected the
right of men to beat their wives through the midnineteenth
century. n12 In the late 1800s, shifting public attitudes
prompted some states to eliminate explicit legal protection
for batterers, and several instituted a range of punishments
for abusive husbands. n13 Most early reform efforts,
however, focused primarily on maintaining the family
structure and failed to provide meaningful relief for the
victims of domestic violence. n14 Indeed, until as recently
as twenty-five years ago, battered women had few legal
remedies available to them. n15
- - - - - - - - - - - - -Footnotes- - - - - - - - - - - -
n11 See OKUN, supra note 1, at 2-6.
n12 See ANGELA BROWNE, WHEN BATTERED WOMEN KILL 165-67
20 Fla. St. U.L. Rev. 679, *681
n7 Id. ("For as he [the husband] is to answer for her
misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him
with this power of restraining her, by domestic
chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed
to correct his apprentices or his children." (quoting 1
William Blackstone, Commentaries *444)).
Richard T. Campbell | Internet : DCAMP AT UIC.EDU
Department of Sociology M/C 312 | Phone (W): 312/413-3759
University of Illinois at Chicago | Phone (H): 708/386-2263
1007 W. Harrison St. | FAX : 312/996-5104
Chicago, IL 60607-7140 | BITNET : u08239 AT UICVM
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 1994 10:28:16 PST
From: Andy Kelly <KELLY AT HUMNET.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Who Stole Feminism (again)?
Good reply on the Sommers book. She should be treated like any
other author: applauded when right, disagreed with when mistaken or
According to my research, she is right in saying that the
expression "rule of thumb" did not originate in the context of
wife-beating, but she is wrong to repeat Philip Hiscock's assertion
(really an unsubstantiated guess) that it comes from the practice of
wood workers or construction workers. The OED under "thumb" notes
that the breadth (NOT the length of the first joint) was taken for
an inch, and examples are given from the cloth trade. But this does
not mean that the expression originated in the cloth trade. The sad
truth is that we don't know where it comes from.
As far as I have seen, "rule of thumb" was first associated with
wife-beating by Del Martin in 1976, but she was being whimsical (a
point that Sommers fails to make). It was seriously associated with
wife-beating by Terry Davidson in 1977, completely without
historical foundatio; and authors who cited Davidson jumped to the
conclusion that the alleged common law of rule of thumb gave rise to
the expression (N.B. I would be grateful if anyone can find
earlier associations of "rule of thumb" with wife-beating).
Sommers is partially right on Blackstone, and partially mistaken,
both in her book and in her reply to Linda Hirshman's critique (the
critique appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1994, M5, and
the reply on 13 August '94, B1). She reads Blackstone as saying
that the old law [before 1660] allowed moderate chastisement but
prohibited violence. Not so: Hirshman is right in saying that
Blackstone qualified it as excessive violence (he does this by
quoting a Latin writ). Sommers is wrong in her reply to say that
the sense of the Latin was included in her citation, but right in
finding Hirshman mistaken for suggesting that this was current law
or Blackstone's own opinion of current law.
Sommers is also mistaken (in her book) in citing Blackstone to say
that the courts still permitted husbands of lower rank to restrain
wives of their liberty, or that the prohibitions against violence
went largely unenforced, especially among the lower rank. What
Blackstone says is that moderate violence used to be allowed, but
not after the time of Charles II, though the lower rank of people
still claimed it as a right; but the courts did still allow husbands
(of all ranks) to restrain their wives in cases of gross
I document all this in an article, "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw
of the Husband's Stick," to appear in the September issue of the
Journal of Legal Education. I unpack all of Blackstone's sources,
including Roman civil law, and analyze the American cases in which
thumb-measurements or other criteria for the husband's stick are
mentioned, and I also deal with an English judge of the king's
bench, Sir Francis Buller, who in 1782 was lampooned for his view
that husbands could use a smaller-than-thumb stick.
Andy Kelly (aka Henry Ansgar Kelly, English Department, UCLA)
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 1995 08:50:00 CST
From: joAnn Castagna <Castagna AT CLA-PO.LIBERAL-ARTS.UIOWA.EDU>
Subject: "rule of thumb"
yesterday i was having a conversation with a male faculty member who
kept using the phrase "as a rule of thumb." finally, i suggested to
him that given the derivation of the phrase, many women find it
offensive and he might want to consider not using it. he was quite
skeptical about my explanation (that it is based on English common law
referring to the size of the stick with which men could beat their
wives), and i'd like to be able to send him a reference citation--does
anyone have one?
joann castagna joann-castagna AT uiowa.edu
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 1995 14:46:15 -0500
From: "Patricia J. Ould" <POULD AT MECN.MASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb"
Susan Estrich discusses the "rule of thumb" in her book Real Rape. I am
sure you could use her discussion as a reference. I am certain also that she
references her discussion.
Pat Ould pould AT mecn.mass.edu
Date: Fri, 10 Feb 1995 11:00:40 +0000
From: Jo Davies <DAVIESJM AT REDASH.QUT.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb"
THE "RULE OF THUMB" WAS DERIVED FROM A 1782 JUDGE'S PROCLAMATION THAT THE
'HUSBAND OF A NAGGING WIFE...COULD LEGALLY BEAT HER AT HOME PROVIDED
THE STICK HE USED WAS NO THICKER THAN A MAN'S THUMB'. THE BRITISH
LAW EXPLICITLY SUPPORTED AND UPHELD THE HUSBAND WHO PHYSICALLY
CHASTISED HIS WIFE UNTIL 1891 ALTHOUGH AS RECENTLY AS IN 1915 IT WAS
REITERATED IN LONDON BY A POLICE MAGISTRATE. [see Kashani, et al.
1992; Wilson, 1983:84; Campbell and Humphreys, 1984; 1993 as some
Regards, Jo Davies
Date: Thu, 9 Feb 1995 22:10:04 -0500
From: Constance J Ostrowski <ostroc AT RPI.EDU>
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb"
We'd better be careful here, or Christina Hoff Sommers will come after us
again for creating a "feminist fiction" as she did in her so carefully
researched and meticulously cross-checked _Who Stole Feminism?_ (204)!!!
More seriously (less sarcastically), the source of this expression does seem
to be controversial. (Some good discussions of this subject can be found in
the Fall 1994 issue of _Democratic Culture_, which was a special issue on
(the various failings) of her book.) It is true that the OED, held to be the
ultimate English etymological source by many, does not list any uses of the
term that clearly refer to a husband's right to beat (or should we say
"chastise") his wife, and these examples date back to 1692. However, it does
list a Scottish proverb from a 1721 source which could be read as referring
to beating: "No Rule so good as Rule of Thumb, if it hit."
I know, I know, Christina, it may also refer to carpentry. But maybe not.
And here's an important point: while folk knowledge is far from infallible,
if folk tradition has it that the phrase arose in relation to wife-beating
(the right thereto), just because there may be no official written records
of that use--records, we must remember, which were created/compiled by men--
that does not mean that the folk tradition is necessarily false.
However, see these accounts of the way in which this etymological controversy
has been used to attempt to discredit feminist activity and to cast doubts on
the existence of various manifestations of systemic violence against women:
Sommers wrongly denies that the Anglo-American
legal system has tolerated violence against
women, but unfortunately, Sommers' false attack
on the rule of thumb has proven influential. The
_Cleveland Plain-Dealer_ (7/26) reports that Rep.
Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Barbara Boxer
(D-CA) will no longer mention the 'rule of thumb'
because it is 'not true' and 'apocryphal.'
(John K. Wilson, "Stolen Feminism?" _Dem.Cult_:8)
And as Jonathan Entin, law professor at Case Western Reserve says in
his "Beyond Polemic" in the same issue:
Some of the errors Sommers notes, such as the etymology
and significance of "rule of thumb," might seem trivial.
Unfortunately, they can have a corrosive effect on public
perceptions of those who purvey them. Moreover, they can
also provide cheap rhetorical ammunition to critics. For
example, I know of at least one conservative commentator
(a woman) who used the controversy in the University of
Minnesota's Scandinavian studies department to question
whether sexual harassment allegations should ever be
taken very seriously. (15)
Whether or not the phrase's origins can be found in wife-beating, it certainly
has been used in cases to refer to wife-beating (State v Oliver, State v
Rhodes and Bradley v State are three examples mentioned by Linda Hirshman
in her article "The Big Lie" in the _Dem. Cult._ issue; a longer version of
heressay had appeared in the _Los Angeles Times_ on July 31, 1994).
ostroc AT rpi.edu
Date: Fri, 10 Feb 1995 08:16:58 EST
From: "N.A. Slonneger" <NSLONNEGER AT MUSIC.TRANSY.EDU>
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb"
The reference to "rule of thumb" which I am aware of is in Martha Lee
Osborne's book _Woman in Western Thought_, which is now out of print
:( Although she doesn't make the explicit connection between the
phrase and English law, she mentions in the intro to Locke that at the
time it was the law that a man had the right to beat his wife at his
pleasure so long as the stick he used was no wider than his thumb. Not
much to go on, but hope this helps!
300 N. Broadway
Lexington, KY 40508
NSLONNEGER AT music.transy.edu
Date: Fri, 10 Feb 1995 11:03:27 EST
From: "Gina Oboler, Anthropology & Sociology,
Ursinus College" <roboler AT ACAD.URSINUS.EDU>
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb"
Until these recent discussions, and despite teaching in my own classes that
the phrase "rule of thumb" had been used in legal discussions of wife-
beating, I never thought that any claim was being made that this was the
*origin* of the phrase. I accepted what I thought was folk wisdom -- that
the phrase originated in carpentry, and was used to mean an approximate
measure, as in measuring with one's thumb. I thought the phrase had
merely been taken over and used in these legal cases, because it was
already well established in language.
I'm not sure that the feminist history claim was ever meant to be that
this phrase *originated* in the context of wife-beating. Clarifications,
-- Gina (roboler AT acad.ursinus.edu)
Date: Mon, 13 Feb 1995 07:52:41 +0200
From: Lena Koski ENGE <lkoski AT RA.ABO.FI>
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb"
I think Gina is right about the 'origin' of "the rule of thumb." I
think it was originally an expression of measurement. In fact, there
is a word in Swedish, "tum" (=inch), which originates from the word
"tumme" (=thumb). So -- I would strongly suspect that "the rule of
thumb" originally was used by carpenters and others as a measuring
* Lena Koski
* Abo Akademi University
* Department of English
* lena.koski AT aton.abo.fi
Date: Tue, 25 Oct 2005 14:17:19 +1000
From: Michael Flood <Michael.Flood AT ANU.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: rule of thumb
A further critique of claims about the 'rule of thumb' is made by
Straton in the following. (He also emphasises, crucially, the many
other ways in which the law did condone men's violence against women.)
Straton, Jack C. (2002). Rule of Thumb Versus Rule of Law. Men and
Masculinities, 5(1), July.
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