Old wives' tale
Old wives' tale is a derogatory epithet used to indicate that a supposed truth is actually a superstition or something untrue, to be ridiculed. The phrase comes with the assumption that a story told by old women could not have credibility, regardless of the particulars of the story. The phrase is used in the context of unvalued women's knowledge. 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. Today, some "old wives' tales" have proven to be valid. Old wives' tales often center on women's traditional concerns, pregnancy, puberty, social relations, health, herbalism and nutrition.
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.
The concept of old wives' tales has existed for centuries. In 1611, the King James Bible was published with the following translation of the Apostle Paul writing to his young protégé 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 did not attempt to moralise, but to teach lessons and make difficult concepts like death or coming of age easy for children to understand. Also these stories are 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.
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Examples of old wives' tales include:
- Masturbation will make you blind and have hairy palms.
- Ice cream leads to nightmares.
- Toes pointed up signify low blood sugar.
- Cracking knuckles gives arthritis.
- High heart rates lead to female fetuses.
- Don't swallow gum or it will stay in your stomach for seven years.
- Don't make silly faces or it will make the silly face permanent.
- Chocolate leads to acne.
- Shaving makes the hair grow back thicker.
- Eating crusts (of a sandwich) makes your hair go curly/you grow hair on your chest.
- The appearance of white spots on the fingernails (Leukonychia) is due to lying/not eating enough green vegetables/calcium.
- It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.
- Nosebleeds are a sign of sexual arousal.
- Blue Letter Bible – 1 Timothy 4:7
- The Guardian, 15 May 2010, Greer, Germaine. "Grandmother's footsteps" http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/15/germaine-greer-old-wives-tales
- Zipes, Jack. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, Routledge, 1993 ISBN 0-415-90834-5
- Swezey, Robert L., and Stuart E. Swezey. "The consequences of habitual knuckle cracking" Western Journal of Medicine 122.5 (1975): 377.
- Unger, Donald L. "Does knuckle cracking lead to arthritis of the fingers?" Arthritis & Rheumatism 41.5 (1998): 949–950.