Rule of thumb

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1782 caricature of judge Francis Buller over a Rule of Thumb trial.
The blond man laughed. "Sir Miesko, you astound me with your valor in battle and your meekness in wedlock. You had best take the advice of the Holy Church and never strike your wife with a stick longer than the distance from your fingertip to your elbow, nor bigger around than your thumb. Then take my advice and never use anything less! And often, Sir Miesko, to ensure your bliss, marital and otherwise."
   "Your advice is always welcome, my lord, though it may be that I will state certain facts at tonight's festival." He grinned.
   "Hah! That
my wife chooses to stay in Hungary and I support her there? Well met, Sir Miesko."
  — Leo Frankowski, The Cross Time Engineer (1986)

A rule of thumb is a is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximately calculating or recalling some value, or for making some determination.

Origin of the phrase

It is often said that the "rule of thumb" 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 discredited.[1]

British common law before the reign of Charles II permitted a man to give his wife "moderate correction", but no 'rule of thumb' (whether called by this name or not) has ever been the law in England.[2][3] Such "moderate correction" specifically excluded beatings, only allowing the husband to confine a wife to the household.[4]

Nonetheless, belief in the existence of a "rule of thumb" law to excuse spousal abuse can be traced as far back as the 18th century. In the United States, legal decisions in Mississippi (1824) and North Carolina (1868 and 1874) make reference to—and reject—an unnamed "old doctrine" or "ancient law" by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb.

In reality, the phrase "rule of thumb" is believed to originate in approximate measurement using the width or length of one's thumb that was common in various professions. In some other languages (e.g. German, Dutch), it is called the "rule of fist" without any connotations to beating.


  1. 28env - J.Straton - North Carolina.Violence women
  2. Rule of thumb
  3. Straight Dope
  4. In 1675, Sir Matthew Hale wrote, "The salva moderate castigatione in the Register is not meant of beating, but only of admonition and confinement in the house in case of her extravagance; which the court agreed, she being not as an apprentice." Quoted in Green, Nicholas St. John. (1879) Criminal law reports: being reports of cases determined in the federal and state courts of the United States, and in the courts of England, Ireland, Canada, etc. with notes, Volume 2 Hurd and Houghton.

Further reading

  • Henry Ansgar Kelly, ‘Rule of Thumb and the Folklaw of the Husband’s Stick’, Journal of Legal Education, 44.3 (September 1994), 341-65.

See also


bogus wife-beating law.

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