Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Rule of Thumb: Feminist Fiction

Where did phrase "rule of thumb" come from? The myth goes like this:

As it is told in the opening essay in one of the most popular textbooks in women's studies, Women: A Feminist Perspective, "The popular expression 'rule of thumb' originated from English common law, which allowed a husband to beat his wife with a whip or stick no bigger in diameter than his thumb. The husband's prerogative was incorporated into American law. Several states had statutes that essentially allowed a man to beat his wife without interference from the courts."[49]

Christina Hoff Summers debunks the claim:

The "rule of thumb," however, turns out to be an excellent example of what may be called a feminist fiction. [51] It is not to be found in William Blackstone's treatise on English common law. On the contrary, British law since the 1700s and our American laws predating the Revolution prohibit wife beating, though there have been periods and places in which the prohibition was only indifferently enforced.

That the phrase did not even originate in legal practice could have been ascertained by any fact-checker who took the trouble to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the term has been used metaphorically for at least three hundred years to refer to any method of measurement or technique of estimation derived from experience rather than science.

The reality:

According to Canadian folklorist Philip Hiscock, "The real explanation of 'rule of thumb' is that it derives from wood workers ... who knew their trade so well they rarely or never fell back on the use of such things as rulers. Instead, they would measure things by, for example, the length of their thumbs."

H/T: Diogenes Borealis