Talk:Rule of thumb

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The following statement is incorrect and was removed from the is also somewhat irrelevant:

For most people, the crooked thumb held out at arm's length subtends an angle to the horizon roughly equal to one hour of time - in other words if the distance of the sun is a thumb's length (from tip to first joint) above the horizon, it is about one hour until sunset.

The thumb segment subtends an angle of approximately 3 degrees, and the sun travels this distance in 12 minutes, not an hour as incorrectly stated. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 05:49, 5 January 2005 (UTC)

real etymology?[edit]

if it doesn't come from the wife-beating thing, where does it come from? Gkhan 08:17, Jan 10, 2005 (UTC) The origins of this phrase may be far older dating back to the time of Caesar and the gladiator arena. Though the meaning was a bit more severe. Redbear62 (talk) 20:20, 14 July 2010 (UTC)

spousal rape[edit]

I was just about to suggest that someone link this with spousal rape since they both have to do with archaic rituals concerning a man's rights over his wife. Are we certain this is an urban legend? Anyone else have an idea about its etymology?--Reverend Distopia 21:32, 20 Apr 2005 (UTC)

There is little doubt that the connection between wife beating and the term "rule of thumb" is mythical. The term is not referred to in Blackstones treatise on english common law as claimed in a 1982 report on wife abuse for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Under the Rule of Thumb: Battered Women and the Administration of Justice

Probably the best on line resource for this appears at which is an excerpt from the Christina Hoff Summers book "Who Stole Feminism"

Material revealing the "Rule of Thumb" myth to be just that is widely available and a respectable information source such as Wikipedia ought not proffer obvious myths as reality DrDamage 15 May 2005

Removed the last sentence[edit]

Took out the sentence at the end, "Some believe this has nothing to do with the origin, though..." because it's both poorly written (good writers don't use elipses in that way) and doesn't make sense with the rest of the article.

Whether it's a wiktionary entry or not.[edit]

Looks longer than a wiktionary entry to me. See the wiktionary entry, which actually is a dictionary entry, and compare. --rerdavies 03:02, 4 August 2005 (UTC)

Length is irrelevant, it's content that counts. Absolutly!!! This article is solely about the meaning and etymology of a phrase, not a concept. If there were actual legal rules of thumb, this would be encyclopedic, talking about them with brief mentions of other uses. But there aren't. It's just about the definition and etymology. —Simetrical (talk) 09:20, 5 August 2005 (UTC)

I agree with Redarvies. Leon math 21:56, 2 November 2006 (UTC)

Link to Heuristic[edit]

Should "heuristic" in the first paragraph point directly to "heuristic (computer science)"? I'm not sure. --Hcsteve 07:59, 17 September 2005 (UTC)

No, it shouldn't. The current link is correct. —Simetrical (talk) 06:01, 18 September 2005 (UTC)

etymology from the OED[edit]

Some facts from the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Earliest known use was in a book Fencing-Master by Sir W. Hope in 1692: "What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art".
  • In previous centuries, it primarily was used in contrast to scientifically-justified rules (as in the quote above): A rule of thumb was one that seemed to work, but had no theoretical or scientific justification for why it should work.

--Delirium 20:56, 4 November 2005 (UTC)

Brewing etymology[edit]

From the article: According to the Discovery Science Channel's TV show, "Discoveries This Week" on 19 September 2005, the term comes from brewery industry before the advent of thermometers. The man in charge of aiding yeast would stick his thumb into the vat to check the temperature. This is doubtful, however, as beer is easily contaminated and ruined by casual contact with unsterilized equipment, much less a thumb.

I have doubts about this as the etymology of the term, but not for the reasons stated above. Although many homebrewers today like to think of their brewing method as more sterile than an operating room, this isn't really necessary. Beer has been brewed a lot longer than bleach and no-rinse sanitizers and indeed long before the role of microorganisms in food spoilage was known. Plunging a clean thumb into wort wouldn't necessarily ruin the batch. However, if the test is to see if the wort is cool enough to add the yeast, this wouldn't work. Heat becomes painful to the skin above at least 125 F, but this temperature would kill almost all of the yeast. Yeast shouldn't be added until the wort is at most 80 F. I fail to see how sticking a thumb into the wort would help one in determining this. Penismightierthanthesword 20:16, 27 January 2006 (UTC)

It also doesn't make much sense because the phrase is stated to have originated in the very late 17th century, and simple thermometers were commonly available well before that. I think we should take it out, or at least note more strongly in the article that this is very unlikely. Kafziel 22:05, 7 March 2006 (UTC)

Major Rewrite[edit]

Well, applying the "Be Bold" motto of WP, I went through and tried to reformat this article to regain some clarity in it's content. It seemed (to me at least) that there was alot of conjecture, and confusion especially around the use of this term and possible connections with domestic violence... Understandable that people have strong feelings about that topic, but it was causing more confusion than it was clearing as it stood here.

There was also a mixture of possible and unlikely origins for the term all mashed together - this term (or at least it's use as a measurement technique) has been around for longer than modern laws, so, whether it was used in any laws at a later stage I have strong doubts that that is it's origin.

Feel free to re-add some of the content which I culled, but, in the interests of all, if we can try and keep the division between mis-conceptions regarding it's origin and plausible origins, as well as a chronological order to any references, I think it will keep this article alot clearer. (Before this edit there were a number of references and quotes which all claimed to be the first instance of the term being used).

--Lucanos 23:06, 23 May 2006 (UTC)

Some restorations[edit]

The rewrite does bring the focus of the article back to where it should be, but there is reason it got muddled in the first place. There is a significant number of people who believe the term originated in 18th century laws regarding wife beating. Since the rewrite, someone has been repeatedly putting that opinion back in.

It's better that the article contain some facts regarding the connection of the term to domestic violence. I've restored a reference to Del Martin's usage of the term which in all likelihood is the reason for the popularity of the belief (much more so than Boondock Saints). I've also restored the reference to Sharon Fenick who did the legal research on the subject (the rewrite removed Fenick but left Quinion, but Quinion merely quotes Fenick).

--jpd 17 June 2006

Supreme Court of North Carolina: State v. Richard Oliver, 1874 WL 2346 (N.C.)[edit]

In a decision by Judge Settle in 1874:

"We may assume that the old doctrine, that a husband had a right to whip his wife, provided he used a switch no larger than his thumb, is not law in North Carolina." State v. Richard Oliver, 1874 WL 2346 (N.C. 1874).

This 1874 decision clearly overrules the use of the custom. While the practice is certainly not a myth, the usage of the phrase "rule of thumb" would take more research.

Msross78 00:40, 25 November 2006 (UTC)

Rm trnaswiki tag[edit]

I removed the transwiki tag because I felt it was used inappropriately here. There's a full article here, so the wiktionary link should be enough to alert users that there's also an entry at wiktionary. If you disagree with my action, you can revert me or discuss it here. Peace, delldot | talk 17:41, 31 December 2006 (UTC)

Pelvis spacing[edit]

I've also heard from an anthropology professor of mine that "rule of thumb" refers to the fact that, regarding the skeletal system, one can stick a thumb in the pelvic bone of a female skeleton and wiggle their thumb whereas with males one cannot. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by Maika0* (talkcontribs) 23:28, 21 March 2007 (UTC).

Rearranged sections[edit]

I have rearranged order of the 'Origins' section. Since no conclusive evidence exist on the origin of the saying I think that simple explanations that derive from common crafts should go before the more elaborate ones. I'm especially sceptical of the fact that Del Martins thesis as of 1976 (that the term comes from a legislation that would restrict/allow wife beating) seems to be the primary explanation of the saying in the article.

Apocryphal etymology[edit]

I am troubled that this page contains more on the "wife-beating" rule of thumb nonsense than the actual origin. I think giving this much attention to the false origin rather than the true one contributes to the popularity of the false story and thus the acceptance of the falsehood as fact. (talk) 14:24, 8 May 2008 (UTC)

Since it's been floating around in folklore or urban legend since the 18th-century, and received a new boost of popularity in the last 30 years, the wife-beating story is fairly strongly associated with this phrase, incorrectly or correctly... Churchh (talk) 05:56, 18 May 2008 (UTC)

"It is often claimed that the term originally referred to a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife, but this has been fully discredited as a hoax." The only citation here is third-party article about an anti-feminism book from a right-wing, anti-feminist author. To equate political spin with objective evidence that something has been "fully discredited" does Wikipedia a disservice. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 01:32, 14 July 2008 (UTC)

I said "partially discredited", but then someone insisted on changing it to "fully discredited". It's clear that there never was a law or prevailing legal interpretation based on the thumb-sized stick rule, but on the other hand, the Judge Buller story was fairly well known, and a husband did in fact have the right to use limited physical force to make his wife obedient... Churchh (talk) 07:29, 22 July 2008 (UTC)

Origin Section is an Incoherent Mess[edit]

1. The idea that the "thumb-diameter stick rule" is the origin of the phrase "Rule of Thumb" is not a "hoax"; it is misinterpretation of what Del Martin wrote, which has since blossomed into an urban legend. The word "hoax" implies intent to deceive, and there has certainly been no evidence of that.

2. Whether there was ever a "thumb-diameter stick rule" is an entirely different subject, and quite off-topic for this article; to make matters worse, this section does not distinguish enough between the concept of whether (and to what extent) the "thumb-diameter stick rule" ever existed and the concept of whether it was the origin of the "Rule of Thumb", which only serves to confuse the reader as to what actually is being discussed.

3. My guess is that part of the problem is that the editors have been using anti-feminist sources and have been carrying over the agendas of those sources into the article. There are plenty of academic sources that can be used. I suggest starting with:

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick." Journal of Legal Education. September 1994.[1] (talk) 09:00, 6 November 2008 (UTC)

I don't know what Del Martin specifically wrote, but it's been claimed or implied by various people in the last 30 to 40 years that the thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing was once part of the formal judicial Common Law of English-speaking countries, whereas it's quite clear that the thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing was never part of the formal judicial Common Law of English-speaking countries; so to that extent there has been a need for debunking, and this article will need to report on such debunking (and it's not in fact off-topic). Any extended discussion of the right of husbands to use moderate physical force on their wives to enforce obedience (something which did exist under the formal judicial Common Law of English-speaking countries) would be off-topic here (though it certainly can be mentioned). Churchh (talk) 22:58, 20 November 2008 (UTC)
You seem to be confused about the topic of this article. The topic is the phrase "Rule of Thumb" (which you don't even refer to in your above comment) *not* the "thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing". There is of course a need in this article to de-link "Rule of Thumb" from the "thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing", but debunking the "thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing" is off-topic here. If you wish to do that, start a separate article about the "thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing". That would go a long way to correcting this mess. (talk) 09:25, 21 November 2008 (UTC)
The topic of the article is not the phrase "Rule of Thumb", any more than the article Rule of inference is about the phrase "Rule of Inference". The false etymology has considerable currency & must be dealt with. This will necessarily include some reference to the "thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing", which can hardly be mentioned without a few words about the "thing"'s origin (Buller accused by Gillray) and status as a non-law. Ewulp (talk) 00:07, 22 November 2008 (UTC)

This section has become feminist apologist's rant. It justifies the connection between rule-of-thumb and wife beating with a one-sided argument. Hoff-summers and others have shown that there is plenty of evidence of attempt to deceive in this connection, so 'hoax' is an appropriate, albeit controversial, label. My first choice would be to omit the "thumb-sized-stick-to-beat-wife thing" altogether other than stating it to be untrue. But if authors insist on justifying the connection, there must be more explanation of its misuse by feminists. Rgswanson (talk) 18:50, 3 July 2011 (UTC)

I don't see that. Feminism isn't mentioned until the final two sentences of a two-paragraph passage. Hoaxing may have been involved in the modern era, but the idea has been lingering since at least 1782, and so is hardly a "feminist hoax" overall, and deserves coverage of its pre-feminist history. And Hoff-Summers is quite controversial herself. The law professor "Romulus" thing mentioned on the Christina Hoff-Summers article is not on this article. Churchh (talk) 04:16, 5 August 2011 (UTC)


Removed "See also mnemonic" from the first paragraph. What does the Rule of Thumb have to do with mnemonics? If there's a link between the two, state it. Akel Desyn (talk) 05:25, 19 August 2009 (UTC)

Width of thumb?[edit]

"Thumb as measurement device

The term is thought to originate with wood workers who used the width of their thumbs (i.e. inches) rather than rulers for measuring things"

I thought that the length of the thumb from tip to first joint was approximately an inch. (talk) 14:08, 17 February 2010 (UTC)

What is short and close at hand?[edit]

Essentially a mnemonic for a rule that can be easily remembered because it is short and close at hand like the thumb. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Inning (talkcontribs) 10:54, 23 January 2011 (UTC)

Art, architecture, and ancient engineerinvg[edit]

This article says nothing about the use of the thumb neither by artists for measuring, nor by Renaissance, medieval, and ancient architects, builders, and engineers for measuring things relative to the expert's thumb. Such a procedure was useful for estimating the heights of towers, columns, temples, bridges, etc.
I think that the knowledge of such antiquated things has been lost among the general public (which cares little), but I studied it in a three-course sequence called "Technology and Civilization" in college. Such courses are quite popular at schools like Auburn University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, which I know well because I have degrees from both schools.
Don't they have courses like this at M.I.T., Cornell, G.W.U., the Univ. of Michigan, the Univ. of Texas, the Univ. of California, Stanford, and U.S.C. ? (talk) 16:13, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

Recent edits[edit]

What does the edit summary "no WP:FRINGE views from Judge Thumb that was ridiculed even in the day. Fringe is covered adequately" even mean? Who is "Judge Thumb" whose views are declared to be WP:FRINGE? I re-attributed Matthew Hale's opinion to Matthew Hale per WP:ATTRIBUTEPOV and WP:Primary. And I restored the quote from the JAC journal. --Sonicyouth86 (talk) 16:52, 9 December 2014 (UTC)

The references to the judges that ever used "rule of thumb" were ridiculed. Every source that has searced the history of "rule of thumb" has found the interpretation as "wife beating" rule to be lacking any credibility. It's a WP:FRINGE viewpoint and it is adequately covered in this article. Adding fringe material is WP:UNDUE considering how many sources say "It has nothing to do with wife beating." Your two citations roundly reject it's origins and meaning. Your quote of Blackstone doesn't even mention a rule of thumb and the source you quoted it from rejects that wife beatings were legal in Blackstones day. It's an entire treatise on how the "rule" didn't exist in English common law, canon law or Roman law. --DHeyward (talk) 00:24, 10 December 2014 (UTC)
And what sources do you have to support your claim? Chris Troutman (talk) 01:30, 10 December 2014 (UTC)
@Chris troutman: His own source for one: Kelly, Henry Ansgar (September 1994). "Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband's Stick". Journal of Legal Education 44 (3): 341–365.[2] it's available on JSTOR.[3] It's free. Sonicyouth is misquoting it greatly. None of what he's written is an accurate summation. It's a fringe view that "Rule of thumb" has a legal history of wife beating and his use of Kelly is egregiously misquoting. This is the source where SY alleges Blackstone allowed for wife beating. Kelly says exactly opposite of what SY says. Kelly disputes that Blackstone acknowledges legal wife beating (let alone a "rule of thumb"). --DHeyward (talk) 05:48, 10 December 2014 (UTC)
How absurd. This is a direct quote from Blackstone: "But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds; and the husband was prohibited to use any violence to his Wife, aliter quam ad virum, ex causa regiminis et castigationis uxoris suae, licite et rationabiliter pertinet." You can find that quote everywhere. Kelly quotes this exact sentence on page 356. It's freaking unbelievable that you are disputing that Blackstone wrote that, that Kelly quoted it and that I used this exact quote in the article. Stop following me around and targeting my sourced additions! --Sonicyouth86 (talk) 12:19, 10 December 2014 (UTC)
Two Points: What does it have to do with the rule of thumb? and Kelly explains the primary source quote further on if you bothered to read it and concludes that Blackstone was not referring to the law in his time. Look below and you will see Kelly asking people to quit maligning Blackstone by saying wife beating was accepted in his time. You don't seem to have the whole source and since Kelly, the expert, disagrees with you, we need to stick to the reliable sources. There is nothing from Kelly that concludes "Rule of Thumb" was anything more than a fringe theory. I pointed you to this article when you made the same fringe points elsewhere. The fact you are adding Blackstone quotes here that have nothing to do with the article is your attempt at desperation. When you get the whole Kelly source, read it. --DHeyward (talk) 15:14, 10 December 2014 (UTC)

Here is Kelly's interpretation which is the next sentence from the source (pg 364-365) In fact, Blackstone limits his observation about the lower rank of people to their insisting on the old law of wife-beating, which was no longer recognized by the courts. He does not limit the courts' allowance of restraints upon wives to any particular class of people, and he says nothing about any failure of the courts to enforce their new interpretation of the law. He clearly disagrees with any interpretration that Blackstone believed the law allowed wife beating. He goes on: ...from Blackstone through the American judges if the last century to the modern writers on wife-beating, we see a tendency to believe that customs were worse in the earlier eras and other lands than in the writer's own more enlightened time and place.... No one likes to be associated with wife abuse. But we must all guard against unfairly accusing others of harboring beliefs or engaging in practices for which there is no evidence and we should be concerned to give due credit to those in the past tried to mitigate the harsh customs and practices of others. It's an article that refutes even the slightest notion that "Rule of thumb" was a legal term for abuse. --DHeyward (talk) 05:53, 10 December 2014 (UTC)

And the intro: Here's the intro to his piece where he Kelly talks about the topic of his paper: The venerable and innocuous expression "rule of thumb" has taken a beating in recent years. It has been given a phony origin as designating an allowable weapon for wife-beaters, and in consequence there has been an effort to boycott its traditional usage because of the supposedly sinister circumstances of its beginnings. I propose to first look at genuinely documented uses of "rule of thumb" and then study incidences of the false interpretation and try to find the likely path of its development, Next I discuss instances in which the thumb (or some related measure) has been used to describe switches. Finally, I examine some earlier allegagations of allowable wife-chastisement in English law, Roman law and canon law. --DHeyward (talk) 05:55, 10 December 2014 (UTC)

The final page calls for everyone to stop maligning "rule of thumb" because there is no evidence to suggest it has any origin in wife-beating. --DHeyward (talk) 06:13, 10 December 2014 (UTC)

Note that SY86 and now Binksternet has restored material allegedly from that paper by Kelly. But it's false. Kelly says no such thing. --DHeyward (talk) 05:57, 10 December 2014 (UTC)

Kelly's work is analyzed by Professor Jennifer Freyd and she concludes that, while Kelly is correct in that the phrase "rule of thumb" did not refer to the size of tool used for wife beating, historic law cases prove that there was indeed a tradition allowing a husband to punish his wife with a small whip or stick, and that this tradition was upheld by courts. She says she looked at the same evidence Kelly looked at, and that Kelly's beliefs led him to his contrary conclusion. Binksternet (talk) 03:12, 11 December 2014 (UTC)
I didn't bring Kelly into the debate, only corrected the gross mischaracterization attributed to him by SY86 and as such have read the entire article. I note the Freyd appears to be a non-peer reviewed essay while Kelly is published in a peer reviewed journal. Freyd also agrees with virtually everything Kelly writes. Kelly acknowledges apocryphal account of various stick sizes. The takeaway though is that common law was fairly amorphous prior to 1600 and there were hardly standards. I disagree that Freyd concluded the stick tradition was upheld. What Kelly and Freyd both say is judges and lawyers that used common law apocryphal account of various stick sizes as acceptable instruments of assault were ridiculed (included in our article is the cartoon of "Judge Thumb"). She mentions that some cases were dismissed where a husband hit his wife with a stick though I don't think her conclusion of dismissal=acceptable is as persuasive as Kelly's detailed account of the law (as well as referencing gross mistakes made by a couple judges that repeated "legal stick sizes." We have domestic violence cases today without legal punishment (i.e. read the news on the NFL). Freyd's essay, especially by her last sentence, is that the popular feminist movement of the day to boycott the phrase as being offensive is really not supported and domestic violence prevention shouldn't be sidetracked by the phrase. I don't believe there is much offense taken by that phrase today nor is there any remaining serious attempts to remove it from the lexicon. She acknowledges Kelly as the foremost authority on it. If you read our article, it mentions the same legal cases that Freyd mentions. --DHeyward (talk) 07:39, 11 December 2014 (UTC)


  • Musical: Joseph MacDonald, in his book Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (c. 1760), wrote:

    The first Composers of Pipe Music having never heard of any other Instrument or known any of the Rules ever invented of Musick ... it may not be improper to discover the general rule by which they Taught & regulated their Time (having neither of Common or Triple Time, Crotchet or Quaver) but only their Ear to which they must only trust. This Rule we may more properly Call The Rule of Thumb. In effect it is Much the same, for it was by the four Fingers of the Left hand that all their Time was measurd & regulated E.G An Adagio in Common Time of Such a Style must not exceed or fall short [of] Such a number of Fingers, otherwise it was not regular. If the March was to be but a short Composition, the Ground must be of So many fingers; for Bars they had no notion of; if a Gathering, commonly of Such a Number, If a Lament, If a March, & c. according to the Occasion it must Consist of Such a Number.[1]

  • Tailors' Rule of Thumb: This is the fictional rule described by Jonathan Swift in his satirical novel Gulliver's Travels:

    Then they measured my right Thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical Computation, that twice round the Thumb is once around the Wrist, and so on to the Neck and Waist, and by the help of my old Shirt, which I displayed on the Ground before them for a Pattern, they fitted me exactly.[2]

  1. ^ MacDonald, Joseph, Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, p. 64.
  2. ^ Swift, Jonanthan (1735). "Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput – Chapter 6: Of the inhabitants of Lilliput; their learning, laws, and customs; the manner of educating their children. The author’s way of living in that country. His vindication of a great lady.". Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Regions of the World (amended ed.). Retrieved 10 June 2010. 

I removed these examples because they have no references to reliable secondary sources for establishing due weight. Entire sections based on primary sources like this run into problems of original research. —Sangdeboeuf (talk) 01:36, 21 February 2017 (UTC)