Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Back in the days of not so Merrie Olde England, the law allowed men to beat their wives, children, horses, and anyone unable to defend themselves. As the folk tale goes, the law stipulated they could use only sticks that were no larger around than their thumbs. Don’t have a ruler handy? An adult thumb is about an inch wide and three inches around.

A rule of thumb is not a rule at all. 

It is a way of estimating, handy because it has proven to be a practical way of doing things. Rules of thumb are easily learned and easily applied. They are general guidelines that are useful in what some people call normal circumstances. One difference between experts and novices is that experts recognize conditions under which a rule of thumb does not apply while novices never do.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb:

For products you use regularly, always have one or two full replacements as backups (in hurricane season, you’d use another rule of thumb).

Here’s another:

When you’re running errands in your car, do as the UPS drivers do. Plot a counter-clockwise route that makes the least number of left turns. You’ll get done more quickly, use less gas, and cut the chance of having an accident by 90%.

As I was taking a closer look at rules of thumb, I was reminded how versatile thumbs really are. Here are some of the thumbs I found:

Thumbnail sketch.

Generally speaking, a thumbnail sketch is a brief description of something larger. The term originated among artists who tried to quickly capture ideas using only a few simple strokes. Typically done in pencil, thumbnail sketches include only the essential features, leaving the details for later. Most of us know thumbnails as the term for miniature computer graphics.

Thumb Your Nose.

During the first half of the 1900s, putting a thumb to the nose and wiggling the fingers was a common way children mocked someone. This gesture was often accompanied by sticking out one’s tongue and blowing a raspberry. This use of raspberry to refer to the mimicking of a flatulent sound comes courtesy of Cockney rhyming slang, where “raspberry tart” is secret insider code for “fart.” The American term for raspberry – Bronx Cheer – is said by some to have originated when fans at Yankee Stadium expressed their displeasure with opposing teams and umpires. 

Thumb a Ride.

People who wanted free rides would wait by the side of the road and stick their thumbs out as a sign to passing motorists. People who had no money but wanted to get somewhere would, too, like this scene with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Another word for soliciting free rides along the road is hitchhiking, a common activity before our superhighways came along. During the 50s and 60s, thumbing rides was popular among students, artists, and musicians.

In 1973 the FBI campaigned against picking up hitchhikers.

Nowadays it is banned for one reason or another in 45 of the 50 states. It may still be allowed for galactic travel, though.

Little Jack Horner.

Written by Henry Carey in 1725, this nursery rhyme has been described by some as a satire involving Henry the Eighth and a monastery. Most agree it was probably an expression of jealousy over a rival who became wealthy by writing infantile poems for aristocrats’ children.


Middle school sadists sneaked them pointy part up onto other student’s chairs to cause harm and embarrassment.

Thumb drive.

These thumb-sized, portable data storage tools are often used as inexpensive promotional devices. They are also referred to as flash drives because they store data without using power. Yes, that earlier photo of a thumb was a thumb drive, too.

Thumbs up and thumbs down.

We see these online everywhere. To give someone or something a thumbs up is an indication of approval. We show disapproval by giving it a thumbs down. Adults learned from gladiator movies that these gestures originated in ancient Rome. Most don’t know we got the original meanings backward somehow (back then, up was bad and down was good).

Tom Thumb.

Born in Bridegeport, Connecticut, Charles Stratton was five years old when showman P.T. Barnum put him on exhibit in his New York City museum. Stratton was two feet tall and weighed 15 pounds when Barnum publicized him as General Tom Thumb, “an 11-year-old dwarf from England, brought to the United States at great expense.” As Tom Thumb, Stratton appeared alongside such attractions as the Bearded Lady, the Feejee Mermaid, and conjoined twins Chang and Eng.

Under My Thumb.

To be under someone’s thumb means to be controlled or dominated by them. Here it is, performed live in 1966 by The Rolling Stones.


I thought this referred to some sort of infantile dullard until I took a closer look while researching this article. That’s when I found out it means a piece of journalism that concentrates on the background and interpretation of events rather than on the latest happenings. Its cousin is the think piece, which includes the author’s opinions and is meant to be thought-provoking. Kind of like the things I try to write.

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