Old wives’ tale is a term used to indicate that a supposed truth 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.
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”.
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.
- Letting a wound “dry out” is the proper treatment.
- Cracking knuckles gives arthritis.
- High heart rates lead to female fetuses.
- Swimming with full stomach causes cramps and that 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.
- 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 or not eating enough green vegetables/calcium.
- It’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.
- Nosebleeds are a sign of sexual arousal.
Old wives’ tales are often invoked to discourage certain behaviors, usually of children, or to share knowledge of folk cures for ailments ranging from toothaches to dysentery.