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Apr 17, - Unlike Fenick, untold historians, feminists and legal experts are unaware that the folk etymology for "rule of thumb" is false. For them, the notion. Jump to Folk etymology - A modern folk etymology holds that the phrase derives from the maximum width of a stick allowed for wife-beating under English law; this belief may have originated in a rumored statement by the eighteenth-century judge Sir Francis Buller that a man may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb.‎Origin and usage · ‎Notes.