Old Wives’ Tale

An old wives’ tale is a supposed truth which is actually spurious or a superstition. It can be said sometimes to be a type of urban legend, said to be passed down by older women to a younger generation. Such tales are considered superstition, folklore or unverified claims with exaggerated and/or inaccurate details. Old wives’ tales often center on women’s traditional concerns, such as pregnancy, puberty, social relations, health, herbalism and nutrition.

Main articles: Folklore, Fable, Fairy tale, Folktale, Storytelling, Mythology

Origins

In this context, the word wife means “woman” rather than “married woman”. This usage stems from Old English wif (“woman”) and is akin to the German Weib (also meaning “woman”). This sense of the word is still used in Modern English in constructions such as midwife and fishwife.

Old wives’ tales are often invoked to discourage certain behaviours, usually of children, or to share knowledge of folk cures for ailments ranging from toothaches to dysentery.

The concept of old wives’ tales has existed for centuries. In 1611, the King James Bible was published with the following translation of a verse in I Timothy: “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself [rather] unto godliness” (I Timothy 4:7 KJV).

The oral tradition

Old wives’ tales originate in the oral tradition of storytelling. They were generally propagated by illiterate women, telling stories to each other or to children. The stories do not attempt to moralise, but to teach lessons and make difficult concepts like death or coming of age easy for children to understand. These stories are also used to scare children so they don’t do certain things.

These tales have often been collected by literate men and turned into written works. Fairy tales by Basile, Perrault, and the Grimms have their roots in the oral tradition of women. These male writers took the stories from women, with their plucky, clever heroines and heroes, and turned them into morality tales for children.

Examples of old wives’ tales

Examples of old wives’ tales include:

  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  • Bathing while pregnant can drown your fetus.
  • Bees are only attracted to the color yellow
  • Bulls hate the color red
  • Cats have a natural urge to smother babies.
  • Chocolate gives you acne
  • Coffee stunts your growth
  • Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis.
  • Don’t eat spicy food if you are prone to ulcers
  • Don’t go outside with wet hair. You’ll catch a cold.
  • Don’t make silly faces or it will make the silly face permanent.
  • Don’t swallow gum or it will stay in your stomach for seven years.
  • Drinking milk and eating fish at the same time will discolor your skin.
  • Eating a watermelon seed means the fruit will grow inside of you.
  • Eating carrots will drastically improve your eyesight.
  • Eating chicken soup can cure a cold.
  • Eating chocolate causes acne.
  • Eating crusts (of a sandwich) makes your hair go curly/you grow hair on your chest.
  • Eating horseradish will cure a chest cold.
  • Feed a cold, starve a fever
  • Foods containing mayonnaise spoil faster.
  • Get your hair squeaky clean
  • Hair of the dog gets rid of a hangover.
  • High heart rates during pregnancy lead to female children.
  • Humans only use 10 percent of their brains
  • If you cross your eyes for too long, they will get stuck that way
  • If you have wet hair and go outside in cold weather, you’ll get sick.
  • If you pull out a gray hair, two more will take its place.
  • If you swallow it, gum stays in your intestines for seven years.
  • If you’re carrying high, it’s a girl. If you’re carrying low, it’s a boy.
  • If your ears are ringing, then somebody is talking about you.
  • If you’re pregnant and carrying high, your baby is a girl.
  • It takes 7 years to digest a piece of gum
  • Letting a wound “dry out” is the proper treatment.
  • Masturbation will make you blind and have hairy palms.
  • Never open the door when baking a souffle
  • Overdo it? Have little hair of the dog.
  • Peeing on a jellyfish sting alleviates the pain
  • Put some brandy on your baby’s gums
  • Reading in dim light damages your eyes.
  • Shaving makes the hair grow back thicker.
  • Shaving your hair makes it grow back thicker and coarser.
  • Sitting too close to the television screen will make you go blind.
  • Sitting too close to the television will make you go blind.
  • Spicy foods can cause ulcers.
  • Spicy foods cause ulcers.
  • Spilling salt brings bad luck.
  • Sticking chopsticks upright in your food is bad luck.
  • Swallowed gum takes years to digest.
  • Swimming less than an hour after you eat causes cramps and drowning.
  • Swimming with full stomach causes cramps, and one should wait an hour after eating before swimming.
  • Terrible things come in threes.
  • The appearance of white spots on the fingernails (leukonychia) is due to lying or not eating enough green vegetables/calcium.
  • The swing of your wedding ring will determine your baby’s gender.
  • Toes pointed up signify low blood sugar.
  • Turkey makes you tired.
  • White wine will remove a red wine stain.
  • You can carry an acorn around to stay forever young.
  • You can pick up a penny on the sidewalk for good luck.
  • You can’t swim after eating, or you may drown
  • You should always follow the “five-second rule”
  • You should dab whiskey on a baby’s gums to help with teething pain.
  • You shouldn’t cross your eyes or else they’ll get stuck that way.

Given all of the world’s scientific advancements, one might assume that old wives’ tales have taken a backseat to logical thinking. But there’s nothing logical about the superstitions spread throughout society—and because these mystic fallacies promise to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune, people cling to them like lifeboats. From carrying acorns to throwing salt, there’s no limit to the myths people will believe to feel just a little bit safer, healthier, or happier.

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