Word Court

Rules of thump; settling the score

By Barbara Wallraff

Robert J. Marshall, of Villa Park, Calif., writes: “A recent newspaper article about Katie Couric’s ratings described the network’s hopes, in the fall of 2006, that its ‘high-wattage anchor would … draw scores of new viewers.’ So scores now means ‘a whole lot’? I have heard this usage before. I think the battle is worth fighting, because of the Gettysburg Address.”

I’m with you: Fourscore and seven years ago means “87 years ago,” not just “way back when.” Anyone who knows that would have chosen another word, like hordes or throngs. Unfortunately, dictionaries are not our allies on this point. All the major contemporary American ones, besides giving “twenty” as a definition of score, say that scores can mean “very many,” “an indefinitely large number,” or the like.

Well, this is exactly the kind of thing dictionaries aren’t good at. Yes, relative to a smallish number, scores means a large number, somewhat larger than dozens—as in, “Scores of people at the town meeting …” But relative to a huge number, such as a count of television viewers nationwide, scores means a paltry few. Dictionaries don’t have the space to get into stuff like this: they define dozens pretty much the way they define scores. Let’s hope that only scores, and not lots, of other dictionary entries are similarly unhelpful about ill-advised usages.

Edward Salo, of Mandeville, La., writes: “At work I have noticed my European colleagues making slips with phrases, such as rules of thump for rules of thumb and fuzz factor for fudge factor. These phrases get through e-mail and PowerPoint spell-checkers and sound nearly correct. An Internet search for rules of thump returns numerous entries—is it actually a slip? I hesitate to correct my co-workers, as I am growing rather fond of rules of thump.”

If you search for rules (or rule) of thump in writing vetted by professional editors—for instance, in Google News—you’ll stop doubting it’s a mistake. The phrase is rare in edited media. But please don’t ask me how to explain to your colleagues why the correct expression is rule of thumb.

One popular theory is that it comes from an archaic English law that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick, provided it was no bigger around than his thumb. If the evidence bore that out, I suppose thump would be nearly as apt as thumb. But this theory has been thoroughly debunked. The expression is more likely to have begun as a reference to measuring with one’s thumb—maybe temperature but more likely size, in which case rule might have originally meant “measuring device” rather than “regulation.”

That is to say, for all that’s known about the origin of rule of thumb, the expression might as well be rule of thump. The reason it’s not is that it’s not.

Clive Muir, of Clemmons, N.C., writes: “As a writing teacher, I can tolerate a little verbal mangling, but preregister and preregister early drive me nuts! Please clarify.”

People do a lot of strange things with pre-, but this isn’t necessarily one of them. At the start of a new school year or semester, your students are required to register, no?

If returning students, for instance, are allowed to register in advance of the general registration period, why shouldn’t that be called preregistration? And if they’re allowed to do it well in advance, can’t they preregisterearly? As an analogy, consider prepayment, which isn’t something one does before paying; it’s payment in advance.

I think you should let that one go. Maybe you’d be willing to fill the mental space it took up with a peeve of mine: advance reservations. There is no such thing as a reservation that isn’t made in advance, so the common phrase advance reservations is silly and redundant.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/01/word-court/306572/