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The misunderstood 'rule of thumb' Misconception: Many feminists for years thought the phrase "rule of thumb" referred to British common law's tolerance of wife-beating.

Sun Journal

April 17, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Fenick's efforts were not in vain, however. In response to a query from a correspondent to the alt.folkore.urban newsgroup linked to the Urban Legends Web site, Fenick posted her article where it is now part of the site's permanent archives. Since its inception, the site has expanded its mission from probing the genesis and spread of urban legends to "confirming or disproving beliefs and facts of all kinds, including origin of vernacular."

"Rule of thumb" and other figures of speech can work much the same way that urban legends do: They may appear mysteriously, spread spontaneously and contain elements of humor or horror. And, like urban legends, a figure of speech may contain a grain of emotional, if not actual, truth.

Thus it was easy at first for Fenick and others to believe that the "rule of thumb" was founded in common law. Patricia A. Turner, a University of California at Davis folklorist, well understands how a falsehood can acquire the mantle of truth.

In "I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture," Turner examines the way allegations of forced birth control, corporate collusion with the Ku Klux Klan, drug distribution targeted at urban areas and other anti-black conspiracy theories circulating in the African-American community are based on racist realities and serve as a form of resistance against white oppression.

The same theory can be applied to the rule of thumb, Turner says. A text may be proved to be inaccurate or false, but "if it reflects some deeper truth in society, it doesn't go away." The term "rule of thumb" may "not have that specific etymological origin, but men have dominated women in workplaces and in homes and in virtually every setting. It speaks to a deeper truth."

Students of women's history who want to research possibly apocryphal ideas are also at a disadvantage because they "don't have the paper trail that more mainstream areas of academic discipline have," Turner says. "Sometimes it's more difficult to get to the bottom of something."

That said, Turner acknowledges that it is "very sloppy for an academic to pass on misinformation." Once a theory such as the inaccurate history of the "rule of thumb" has been debunked, it can backfire on those promoting it, she says. "If someone has read it who knows it is false, everything gets discredited on that level. So based on one falsehood, a whole history can be challenged."

That is what concerned scholars and social critics say happened when Christina Hoff Sommers debunked the "rule of thumb" in her 1994 book, "Who Stole Feminism? How Women have Betrayed Women." Sommers finds the earliest misuse of the phrase in a 1976 National Organization for Women report and uses it to bolster her case against domestic-violence statistics.

The feminist rush to brandish the "rule of thumb" as justification for their crusade, Turner suggests, may inadvertently have provided Sommers and her sympathizers with the ideal ammunition to discredit the same cause.

As for Fenick, she received a nice letter from Kelly, who learned RTC of her research after the Safire piece ran. She has written him back, and hopes to hear soon what he thinks about her Coghill reference.

Pub Date: 4/17/98

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