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Jul 20, - We read an email about the supposed etymology of the phrase "rule of thumb," linking it to an old law about wife beating. As the myth goes, "rule of thumb" relates to a British law, allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick, as long as it isn't wider than the man's thumb. Apr 17, - The phrase was invoked in a lecture as an example of domestic abuse permitted by British common law. The rule of thumb, according to the professor, was a law that allowed a man to beat his wife so long as the rod used was no thicker than his thumb.