About the Law of Thumb
Written by London Printing Services When it comes to history, what gets recorded is remembered and the rest is forgotten. Even with the benefit of handwritten recordings and multiple copies via the printing press, stories and legends can get lost over the course of time. Such seems to be the case regarding the phrase “rule of thumb.”
Although there are stories regarding the origin of this common phrase, there is no printed truth to substantiate them. Of course, that does not mean that their tales are untrue, only that there is no way to confirm them.
You see, back in the 1700s, England, like many other places to this day, allowed for men to act with physical force to keep their wives in line. The specifics have varied over time but some have stated that beating with a stick was permissible.
In fact, the tale is that a stick could be used, provided that it was no more than the width of the husband’s thumb. This stick allowed him to rule over the home and his spouse. It was reported that a Judge Sir Francis Buller made this ruling and that others upheld it.
A comical post was made showing the cartoonish depiction of the judge along with a mocking moniker. However, this satire is not proof in and of itself that the ruling exists.
In fact, historians and laypersons alike have studied and attempted to uncover the truth behind the law. There is no record anywhere in England of such a thing occurring.
Even though there is not a printed history of the phrase, it has made it’s way into popular culture and has a direct impact on the way that people think, feels and behave. From books to music and even politics, the phrase has found a home in the English language, where it is used today to indicate an approximation.
So, a rule of thumb is not an exact digit, like pi. Rather, it is a general guideline, an idea. With this in mind, you can use the phrase freely, without worry that you are somehow disrespecting the women of the past.
There is nothing substantial in the printed word to indicate that the men and women of England lived by such a rule. It is likely that an origin related to guestimation in farming or other matters is likely.
Language and the evolution of it is a fascinating avenue of study, including fascinating phrases such as the law of thumb.