The Rule of Thumb

May 26, 2023 | by: Cesar Segura
The Rule of Thumb

Growing up, we are often taught various common phrases without learning their origins in history. One of these phrases that most people do not know the history of is "the rule of thumb." The Cambridge Dictionary defines this phrase as a practical and approximate way of doing or measuring something. However, the origin of this phrase is much more sinister.

Although the geographical origins of this phrase vary based on which source material you are reading, most point to the phrase originating in England approximately 300 years ago. According to sources, the rule of thumb describes a husband's ability to inflict beatings on his wife if the item used for the violence is no longer than the width of his thumb. As shocking as the rule is, there is also a legal basis in the United States.

In 1867, Mr. Rhodes, as referred to in legal documents, struck his wife, Elizabeth Rhodes, three times with a switch about the size of his finger. The State of North Carolina charged Mr. Rhodes with assault and battery. After deliberation, the jury concluded that Mr. Rhodes did, in fact, strike down Mrs. Rhodes unprovoked, aside from the minimal words she spoke. Additionally, he struck her with the switch "about the size of one of his fingers (but not as large as a man's thumb)."

Though shocking, the judge ruled on behalf of the defendant Mr. Rhodes, and he was found not guilty of the assault and battery charges. The judge ruled that the defendant had a right to whip his wife with the switch and felt the jury's findings supported this. Upon this ruling, the Attorney-General for the State did appeal the ruling. However, the supreme court of North Carolina came to the following conclusion:

"The laws of [North Carolina] do not recognize the right of the husband to whip his wife, but our courts will not interfere to punish him for [moderate] correction of her, even if there had been no provocation for it."

Thankfully, since this ruling, courts' attitudes have changed for the better in the realm of violence against women and intimate partner violence. However, we may think twice before using the phrase rule of thumb again.


State v. Rhodes, 61 N.C. 453 (N.C. 1868)

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This website was produced by the Cahuilla Consortium under grant award #2019-VO-GX-0010, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this website are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.