Do you really want to say that? Rule of thumb

An acquaintance of mine was reading a web article recently and immediately got offended because it said:

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If you fell head over heels for a series, it’s been canceled.

I had no idea what the problem was.

“Don’t you see? It’s about beating your wife.”


So, I’ve been doing a little research. And it turns out “rule of thumb” has been associated with wife beating for hundreds of years. It’s just that from the numerous sources I look at, it appears to have been a 18th century misquote.

Here’s some history:

Sharon Fenick wrote an article about its origins in the newsgroup alt.folklore.urban in 1996. She found that for more than two centuries there have been references in legal works to the idea that a man may legally beat his wife, provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb; but the references were always to what some people believed, not to established legal principle.

According to a Wikipedia entry:

Belief in the existence of a “rule of thumb” law 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 Sir Francis Buller, a British judge, for allegedly ruling that a man may legally beat his wife, provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb, although it is questionable whether Buller ever made such a pronouncement (poor record-keeping for trial transcripts in that era makes it difficult to determine whether such a ruling may have existed)

Adding to the confusion, there were court rulings in 19th century America that made reference to the rule of thumb in spousal abuse cases:

There was an 1868 case, State v. Rhodes, where a husband was found innocent because, the judge said, “the defendent had a right to whip his wife with a switch no larger than his thumb,” and in another case in 1874, State v. Oliver, the judge cited the “old doctrine, that a husband had a right to whip his wife, provided he used a switch no longer than his thumb” but continued on that this was “not law in North Carolina. Indeed, the Courts have advanced from that barbarism….”

The rulings then became part of 20th-century government doctrine when, in 1982, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on wife abuse, titled “Under the Rule of Thumb.”


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