Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Let's start with the phrase, which is  RULE OF THUMB.

This phrase is used all the time, so if you haven't heard it, you have probably been wearing ear plugs.  What this phrase refers to is a rough estimate that is not made using scientific measurement.  The phrase got started back in the old days before people had rulers and scales and other devices that measured everything in exact ways.

Some people think that rule of thumb refers to an old English law that was made in 1782 by Judge Sir Francis Buller.  He supposedly said it was okay for a man to beat his wife with a stick, but the stick couldn't be thicker than the man's thumb.  I would hate to think what the judge said a person could use to beat a dog!

But anyway, it turns out there is no proof that Judge Buller ever made such a ruling.  Even though it was legal for a man to hit his wife, a rule of thumb had nothing to do with it.  And the phrase had already been around since the 1600s, so it wasn't like something that Judge Buller made up.

So the real rule of thumb had to do with measuring, because like I said, people didn't have rulers, and it was just as handy to use a body part to measure something.  A tailor's rule of thumb might go like this:  twice the circumference of the thumb is the circumference of the wrist, and twice the circumference of the wrist is the circumference of the neck, and twice the circumference of the neck is the circumference of the waist.

A carpenter might use the length from the end of his thumb to the first joint, which was about 1 inch, as a measurement.  Or a farmer might use his thumb to figure out how far into the ground he should put his seeds.

Dogs, of course, don't have thumbs, which is probably why there aren't any dogs who turned out to be carpenters, tailors, or truck drivers.

The next word is  FROE, which is a tool that you don't see a whole lot of people using nowadays, unless they are doing those pioneer village reenactments.  A froe can be used to split shingles off a block of wood or to make barrel staves or clapboards or other skinny stuff like that.  The blade of a froe sits at right angles to the handle, and then you can hit the blade with a mallet to make it go down through the wood.

The word may have come from an obsolete Middle English word, froward, meaning "turned away," which is what the blade is from the handle.

The falx was a 1st Century weapon
used by Thracians and Dacians
Artwork: Petter Bøckman
DEFALCATION  means sort of the same thing as embezzlement.  It particularly describes officers or public agents who do something naughty in handling the money they're supposed to take care of.  Also it can mean officers of a corporation who use company funds for themselves.

In law, defalcation is more serious than just negligence, but it's not as bad as fraud.  A lot of times, it seems to happen in the insurance title business.

Defalcation comes from three Latin words, defalx, and tion.  A falx is a type of sickle used in hand-to-hand fighting.  If you put these words all together, they mean "cutting off with a sickle."  Modern defalcation isn't as bloody as its root words make it sound, but it's still a very bad thing, and I'm pretty sure you can get sent to jail for doing it.

Sometimes people don't hear a word or phrase correctly, especially if it's an old word that isn't used much anymore.  And when this happens, they substitute some other words that sound similar and seem to make sense.  For example, a person might think "toe the line" is "tow the line" or that "Alzheimer's Disease" is "old-timers' disease."  Well, back in 2003, a linquistics professor named Geoffrey Pullum suggested that we should have a name for this kind of thing.  He said maybe it should be called an EGGCORN.  He picked this word because of an article another linguist wrote about a woman who thought that an acorn was an eggcorn.

So the name stuck, and now we have something to call these funny things that people say or write, of which there are quite a few.  Eggcorns are a little like puns, but the reason they are different is because puns are made on purpose, and people who make eggcorns don't know they are doing it.

Here's an example from a TV channel:  "As much as a foot of snow is possible after all is set and done."  (The Denver Channel, Apr. 14, 2009).

And another example is from Aunt LaDene's aunt, who used to think that "isolated showers" were "ice-olated showers" that had ice in them.

KERAUNOSCOPIA  is fortunetelling done using thunder and lightning.  I tried to find out more details about how this is done, but I couldn't.  In my opinion, if you start seeing lightning and hearing thunder, you can foretell that there will be rain.  But maybe there is more to it than that.

Who's your little  KICKIE-WICKIE?  It's your spouse, of course!  Apparently, Shakespeare wrote this phrase in one of his plays, referring to a wife.  Maybe that's because it was a popular endearment back then.  Or maybe he was just making up silly stuff.

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