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March 3rd, 2004

Rules of thumb / farther and further

by Barbara Wallraff

Tim Cook, of Tucson, Ariz., writes, “My wife got furious at me the other day for using the phrase ‘rule of thumb,’ which she says is sexist. Loretta says there used to be a law that a man could beat his wife with a stick as long as it wasn’t any bigger around than his thumb, and this is where ‘rule of thumb’ comes from. I don’t want to make her madder by telling her she’s wrong, but is this really true?”

The hardest thing to prove is that something never happened or never existed. But the scholars who have researched this question have been unable to find any solid evidence for such a law. In olden times, it’s true, husbands were held responsible for their wives’ behavior. So they were allowed to “chastise” bad wives in ways that included moderate corporal punishment. (Mind you, I’m just telling you the way it was, not defending the tradition.) No one, though, has ever discovered a law that spells out the maximum size of a wife-beating stick.

The superstition about this has been around for a long time: three nineteenth-century American legal decisions contain hints that even in those days people believed this law had once been on the books somewhere. Still, there’s nothing to connect the superstition with the phrase “rule of thumb.” More likely is that craftsmen such as carpenters or tailors used the breadth of their thumb as a measurement, and this rough and ready practice became the “rule of thumb.” This origin is a better fit, anyway, for what the phrase means now: a rule, guide, or method that comes from experience.

Ed Doyle, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes, “The dictionary defines ‘farther’ as distance and ‘further’ as ‘in addition.’ Often I see it the opposite way—for instance, ‘That house is further down the road.’ I ask: ‘How fur?’ What’s going on?”

“Further” and “farther,” along with “far” itself, are peculiar words. If we treated “far” the same way we treat most similar words, we’d say “That house is farrer down the road.” In fact, until the seventeenth century, people did say “farrer.” “Further” was a different word, related to “fore” and “forth,” rather than to “far.” And at first, “farther” was just a variant of “further.” As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “further” and “farther” meant “more forward, more onward.” But this meaning was close enough to what “farrer” meant that people began saying “farther” or “further” instead, and “farrer” faded away.

Lately “farther” and “further” have been growing apart. As you say, “in addition,” or “furthermore,” is a meaning that “further” has and “farther” doesn’t. “Further” is also the right word where no sense of distance is involved—as in, “without further ado.” Many careful speakers and writers use only “farther” to refer to physical distance; they wouldn’t go along with your example of a house “further down the road.” However, sometimes distance is just a figure of speech, and then either form is fine. For instance, “Parents look further—or farther—down the road, toward college.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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