NC court gives thumbs down to ‘rule of thumb’

“To illustrate the misogynous underpinnings of our society, analysts have referred to the ‘rule of thumb’ by which English and American law as recently as the 18th and 19th century reputedly upheld the right of a man to beat his wife with a rod, provided it was no thicker than his thumb….

“The rule was originally asserted in England by Judge Buller in 1783 — but English legal authorities challenged him and writers and cartoonists lampooned him.

“Some scholars have asserted that the rule of thumb became incorporated into American law…  and a ruling by the State Supreme Court of North Carolina is cited. However, closer inspection reveals that the court repudiated both the right of a husband to beat his wife and specifically the rule of thumb, even ridiculing the latter….
“Although the court did uphold the lower court’s ruling that the husband who had struck his wife with ‘three licks’ from a ‘switch about the size of one of his fingers’ had not violated the law, the judges emphasized that their grounds were ‘not that the husband has the right to whip his wife much or little; but that we will not interfere with family government in trifling cases.’ ”

— From “Handbook of the Sociology of Gender” by Janet Saltzman Chafetz (2006)

2 thoughts on “NC court gives thumbs down to ‘rule of thumb’”

  1. I’m glad to learn that this “rule” was not in fact a law in NC, and also not the origin of the phrase, as I believed when someone told me that a few years ago.

    Incidentally, the other hypothesis about the origin of the phase (besides the popular theory that the thumb was literally used as a measuring device) is that beer brewers dipped their thumbs into a batch of beer to test the temperature before thermometers were invented. Who knew?


  2. Interesting, I too had heard that “rule of thumb” applied to the thickness of a branch. Good to know that isn’t true.

    Looking up the information, it appears to possibly be a very very old saying with ties even to Persian where they had an ancient saying that translated to finger’s top rule.

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