Rule of Thumb

For Wonder Why Wednesday I usually have a few guidelines that I try to follow. I write about something that makes me wonder. Then I typically guess at why I think it is that way before researching the actual answer.

You could say that these guidelines are my “rule of thumb.”

What an odd term, “rule of thumb.” When I look at my hand, I don’t think I would pick the thumb as the ruler. It is short and stubby, while the other fingers are tall and lean. Plus, the thumb is kind of an outcast, off to itself below and away from the others.

When I started to think about how the term “rule of thumb” came about I thought I knew exactly why.

The simplest explanation would have to date back to the ancient Roman era where a thumbs up or a thumbs down meant life or death for someone in the Coliseum.

That makes sense, right?


According to “rule of thumb” has a few explanations, none of which are what I thought it would be.

“The origin of the phrase is based on the use of one’s thumb as a measuring tool that can only give approximate measurements. Most Old English measurements originated from the bodily dimensions of the king such as the length of the “foot” for one foot, the inch (thumb tip to first knuckle), cubit (elbow-to-fingertip), and yard (nose-to-fingertip).   There is a second origin given for this phrase. In early English law, and potentially brought over in colonial American, a man was allowed to discipline his wife by beating her provided he used a stick no greater than the diameter of his thumb.”

I get the explanation about using the thumb as a measuring tool, but the one about a man beating his wife? Really?

The only rule is that a stick used to beat a woman couldn’t be greater than the diameter of the man’s thumb. What a dumb rule. Did men at that time think they were being sensitive and nice by making this rule and not using bigger sticks?

What would happen to the man if someone proved the stick was bigger than his thumb? I doube there was ever a time where the woman took the man to court in this instance.

In order to not let this post end on a downer, like domestic violence, let’s remember “rule of thumb” as a measuring device and end with a measurement/punctuation/anatomy joke.

What do you call half of a large intestine?

1 semicolon!

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