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'Rule of Thumb'

July 07, 1994

The phrase "rule of thumb," according to The Times' editorial of June 24, "is said to spring from the old English common law that allowed a man to beat his wife with a rod no thicker than his thumb." An intriguing notion, this, but totally spurious. No such principle is to be found in English law. This myth is being widely cited in print and on television.

The truth is that the phrase has always carried the prosaic meaning attributed to it by the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary: "A method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience; a roughly practical method." The campaign against spousal abuse is critically important, and is only diminished by attaching historical fantasies like this to it.

ANTHONY BRUNDAGE Ph.D.

Professor of History, Cal Poly Pomona

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