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.


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 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[1]).

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.[2]

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.[3]

Examples of old wives' tales

Examples of old wives' tales include:

  • Masturbation will make you blind and have hairy palms.
  • Toes pointed up signify low blood sugar.
  • Letting a wound "dry out" is the proper treatment.[4]
  • Cracking knuckles gives arthritis.[5][6]
  • High heart rates during pregnancy lead to female children.
  • Swimming with full stomach causes cramps, and one should wait an hour after eating before swimming.
  • 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.[7]
  • Shaving makes the hair grow back thicker.[8]
  • 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 or not eating enough green vegetables/calcium.

See also


  1. "1 Timothy 4:7 (KJV)". Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  2. The Guardian, 15 May 2010, Greer, Germaine. "Grandmother's footsteps" http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/15/germaine-greer-old-wives-tales
  3. Zipes, Jack. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, Routledge, 1993 ISBN 0-415-90834-5
  4. O’Connor, Anahad (1 August 2006). "The Claim: Wounds Heal Better When Exposed to Air". Retrieved 14 March 2018 via NYTimes.com.
  5. Swezey, Robert L., and Stuart E. Swezey. "The consequences of habitual knuckle cracking" Western Journal of Medicine 122.5 (1975): 377.
  6. Unger, Donald L. "Does knuckle cracking lead to arthritis of the fingers?" Arthritis & Rheumatism 41.5 (1998): 949–950.
  7. "Blog - Duke Health". www.dukehealth.org. Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  8. "Does shaved hair grow back thicker?". Retrieved 14 March 2018.
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