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In English, the phrase rule of thumb refers to an approximate method for doing something, based on practical experience rather than theory. This usage of the phrase can be traced back to the 17th century and has been associated with various trades where quantities were measured by comparison to the width or length of a thumb.
A modern folk etymology holds that the phrase is derived from the maximum width of a stick allowed for wife-beating under English common law, but no such law ever existed. This belief may have originated in a rumored statement by 18th-century judge Sir Francis Buller that a man may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. The rumor produced numerous jokes and satirical cartoons at Buller's expense, but there is no record that he made such a statement.
English jurist Sir William Blackstone wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England of an "old law" that once allowed "moderate" beatings by husbands, but he did not mention thumbs or any specific implements. Wife-beating has been officially outlawed for centuries in England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) and the United States, but continued in practice; several 19th-century American court rulings referred to an "ancient doctrine" that the judges believed had allowed husbands to physically punish their wives using implements no thicker than their thumbs.
The phrase rule of thumb first became associated with domestic abuse in the 1970s, after which the spurious legal definition was cited as factual in a number of law journals, and the United States Commission on Civil Rights published a report on domestic abuse titled "Under the Rule of Thumb" in 1982. Some efforts were made to discourage the phrase, which was seen as taboo owing to this false origin. During the 1990s, several authors correctly identified the spurious etymology; however, the connection to domestic violence was cited in some legal sources even into the early 2000s.