Dear Ace: What is your rule of thumb?—Digit Bardot
Digit: As much as Ace loves to talk about himself (and does so, on occasion), he fears his paltry answer would leave you, dear reader, feeling a bit slighted. So, in an effort to avoid wasting perfectly good column inches, perhaps the bigger question should be: What is the rule of thumb? Ace hates to edit your question, but if there’s one thing he loves more than talking about himself, it’s decoding an idiomatic conundrum. And don’t worry, he’ll get to himself a little later.
In the late 1700s, it has been said, an English rule was formed to allow a man to beat his wife with a stick. Said stick, however, was to be no thicker than the man’s thumb. This theory has long since been widely discredited; no law was ever actually put in place in England (or anywhere, for that matter), and the sheer ridiculousness of the idea alone negates any truth to it. The idea originated from a comic, published by an 18th century cartoonist, about British Judge Sir Francis Buller, who had allegedly made the law.
Truth is, the expression simply refers to a sort of rough-and-tumble way of measuring something. It’s not based on anything concrete or scientific, but is rather a way of estimating. The more likely version of the story dates around the same time, to woodworkers. It is believed that these men knew their trade so well, they would forgo any measuring devices and use their thumbs as a means of calculating. Seems to Ace that that sort of negates the “measure twice, cut once” rule, which warrants another idiomatic interpretation entirely. And, frankly, Ace just doesn’t have the time. It’s already a hair past a freckle.
As for Ace’s own rules of thumb, he prides himself on having just two (one for each thumb, of course): Never wear a hat that has more character than you do (it’s no secret that Ace is somewhat of a fashion plate), and at last call, order two pints instead of just one. Though, that’s not so much a rule of thumb as just plain good sense.
You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 20 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.