rule of thumb

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English[edit]

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Etymology[edit]

Attested since the late 1600s.[1] Of uncertain origin. One theory notes that the inch originated as the distance between the base of the thumbnail and the first joint, another notes the practice of approximating the general direction of the wind by wetting the thumb then raising it in the air. Another theory notes that English royal banquet plate setters used the distance of their thumbs to equally space each plate from the table edge.

The erroneous claim that the term referred to the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife has appeared in the Washington Post and Time; it may originate from Del Martin's 1976 book Battered Wives.

Noun[edit]

rule of thumb (plural rules of thumb)

  1. A general guideline, rather than a strict rule; an approximate measure or means of reckoning based on experience or common knowledge.
    The usual rule of thumb says that to calculate when an investment will double, divide 70 by the interest rate.
    • c. 1935, Ogden Nash, "Reflection on Ingenuity" in Verses from 1929 On (1959):
      Here's a good rule of thumb:
      Too clever is dumb.
  2. (attributive, usually hyphenated) Approximated, guesstimated.
    I made a quick, rule-of-thumb estimate of the manhours required for the job.

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References[edit]

  1. ^ Michael Quinion lists the first documented use as 1692; the Oxford English Dictionary has documented use as early as 1685.