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Debunking Folk Etymology

Popular, but Inaccurate, Idiom Origins

Sometimes, the origins of words seem too good to be true. They seem too clever, too funny, too perfect– they seem manufactured. Often, that’s because they are. These cases are examples of “folk etymology” — a popular, but fabricated, history of a word or phrase. This occurs often in the origins of idioms  — whether because of false information or poor historical records. Here are a couple examples:

“Rule of Thumb”

The phrase “rule of thumb” refers to a tried-and-true methodology, principle, or procedure. A common misunderstanding is that this expression originated when Fracnis Buller, an 18th century English judge, publicly stated that a husband could strike his wife — as long as the stick was no wider than his thumb. Political cartoonist James Gillray quickly capitalized the situation, creating a satirical depiction of Buller, whom he dubbed “Judge Thumb,” toting bundles of sticks.  

However, after investigation, no evidence exists that Buller — or any other judge — ever made the misogynistic ruling. Furthermore, there are no recorded cases in British law that determined it legal for a husband to strike his wife with a stick of any size. U.C.L.A English professor Henry Ansgar Kelly published an examination of the phrase’s origin in the September 1994 Journal of Legal Education, and concluded, “Rule of thumb has received a bad rap.”

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first printed use of the saying nearly a century before Gillray created his cartoon. In the late 1600s, Sir William Hope, in his “The Compleat Fencing Master,” wrote, “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.” In 1721, still an entire six decades before the Buller fiasco, James Kelly published a compilation of Scottish Proverbs, which includes, “No Rule so good as Rule of Thumb.” Clearly, this phrase existed long before Buller’s supposed remarks.

So how did the idiom originate? It likely stems from humans historically utilizing their thumbs in measurement. Carpenters may have approximated the length of an inch using the width of their thumb; gardeners possibly estimated how deep to plant seeds by digging the length of their thumbs; and perhaps artists studied distance and perspective by holding up a thumb. While only speculations, the accumulation of these scenarios could have been the source of the idiom we say today. Yet one thing is relatively certain — the phrase has no real relation to spousal abuse.

“The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first printed use of the saying nearly a century before Gillray created his cartoon.”

“Saved by the Bell”

The idiom “saved by the bell” describes someone narrowly escaping an unpleasant or difficult situation. Common folk etymology states that this phrase originated during the time periods when fear of being buried alive was prevalent. In order to reduce this wide-spread anxiety, during burials, a string was tied to the deceased. At the end of the string, outside the coffin by the tombstone, lay a bell. If the person underground was actually alive, they would ring the bell. Someone would quickly dig them out, and they would be saved by the bell.

While the historical fear or being buried alive was in fact very real, and these burials rigged with strings and bells were certainly plausible, the common phrase “saved by the bell” has no connection to such morbid history. Rather, its origin comes from boxing. When the bell concluding a match rings just before a boxer is about to be defeated, they are said to have been saved by the bell. 

The idiom first appears in print during the late 1800s in the Massachusetts newspaper The Fitchburg Daily Sentinel: “Martin Flaherty defeated Bobby Burns in 32 rounds by a complete knockout. Half a dozen times Flaherty was saved by the bell in the earlier rounds.” This clear use of the phrase in boxing provides irrefutable evidence that the phrase originates from sport, not burial practices.

The prevalence of folk etymology stems from the fact that folk etymology appears to be regular etymology. Additionally, typically folk etymology is more entertaining than true origins, which causes it to spread further. Without careful examination of a phrase’s origin, fabricated histories will continue to persist.

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