Rule of Thumb


I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Joseph asked:

“Rule of thumb.  I have heard it was a common law rule about the thickness of a switch with which no punishment would occur for spousal abuse.  I have also heard that this is not correct.  I cannot find a definitive source and meaning.”

The popular etymology about “rule of thumb” originating with wife-beating is not correct. The Oxford English Dictionary states about “rule of thumb”:  “Probably so called on account of the thumb being used as a reference for approximate measurements of various kinds. … A suggestion that the phrase refers to an alleged rule allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick the thickness of his thumb cannot be substantiated (compare the discussion by H. D. Kelly in Jrnl. for Legal Educ. 44 (1994) 341–65); it also poses semantic problems. The suggestion appears to be of late 20th-cent. origin, probably arising from a misunderstanding of the pun in the following passage (discussing the alleged rule mentioned above):  1976    D. Martin Battered Wives 31   [In 19th-cent. America] the common-law doctrine had been modified to allow the husband ‘the right to whip his wife, provided he used a switch no thicker than his thumb’ — a rule of thumb, so to speak.”

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

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  1. Tony McCormack says:

    Hi! How about “the Bee’s Knees…” Never understood this one.

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  2. RogerP says:

    “Down the tubes”

    Searched for the origin of this one without success. Always imagined it to be a naval reference to torpedo tubes because once it’s gone down the tubes it isn’t coming back.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      I guess I always associated that with plumbing. Surely they call the plumbing “tubes” somewhere? :)

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  3. ExoByte says:

    Any commentary about “Rule of thumb” must include the “Rule of thumb rule of thumb” which states “All rules of thumb, including this one, is correct 4 out of 5 times”.

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  4. Richard says:

    I live in the UK where, even in a completely metricised (is that a word?) society we are still taught inches, feet, ounces, &c, and I was taught by my granddad that an inch is roughly the length from your thumb-knuckle to the tip of your thumb – this lends weight to the ” reference for approximate measurements” argument.

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    • CT says:

      I always use this rule when I’m at the hair dresser! I’m like “Only cut two inches!!!!!!!!!!!!!” while waving my thumbs around in her face.

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  5. Ian M says:

    My thumb is within 1/64 of one inch wide. Quite useful.

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  6. Lee Creighton says:

    I’d always thought this was from Gulliver’s Travels. Once tied down at Lilliput, the Lilliputians decided to make Gulliver some clothes I quote from the text:
    “Then they measured my right thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical computation, that twice round the thumb is once round the wrist, and so on to the neck and the waist, and by the help of my old shirt, which I displayed on the ground before them for a pattern, they fitted me exactly. “

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  7. JSN says:

    What is source of the following quote?

    “We should lock up people we are afraid of not people we are mad at.”

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  8. Rita Hulsman says:

    For years, I knew about “revenge is sweet,” but then I read somewhere that the real quote is “revenge is sweeter than life, so think, fools!” I cannot, however, find any attribution for the second form of the quotation. Any help would be appreciated.

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