Old wives’ tales really are old. They’re probably almost as old as language itself.

Long before people invented paper and pen to write down their thoughts, they told old wives’ tales and passed them along from person to person as stories.

The term “old wives’ tales” was well-known thousands of years ago. In the 1st century, the apostle Paul even used the term when he wrote a letter to his follower Timothy that would become a book of the Bible: “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).

The name “old wives’ tale” probably comes from the fact that older women would often pass down their advice to the younger generation in the form of sayings that were easy to remember.

The “wives” don’t refer only to married women, though. The term came from the Old English word wif, which means “woman.”

Old wives’ tales are a type of superstition. Often taking the form of short, clever sayings meant to pass along wise advice, most old wives’ tales contain exaggerated or simply false claims.

You’ll find a few old wives’ tales with a bit of truth to them, but these tales are exceptions to the general rule and most likely are simple coincidences.

Let’s take a look at some common old wives’ tales to see whether they’re true or false.

Feed a cold, starve a fever.

Ever heard this one? The advice being passed along is to eat normally if you have a cold, but don’t eat if you have a fever.

Doctors will tell you, though, that it’s important to eat and drink whether you have a cold or a fever so that your body will receive the fluids and nutrition it needs.

After you finish eating, you have to wait an hour before swimming.

This old wives’ tale has been hated by generations of children for hundreds of years. Intended to keep children safe from cramps, there’s actually little, if any, merit to this advice.

The American Red Cross notes that it’s usually not necessary for anyone to wait an hour after eating before swimming, although you may want to wait at least a few minutes to make sure digestion has begun before plunging back into the pool.

Watching too much television is bad for your eyes.

It’s easy to see why parents might want to pass along this old wives’ tale to keep their children from spending too much time watching television. However, watching television — no matter how close to the television you sit — won’t hurt your eyes.

Watching too much television might hurt your health, though, if it prevents you from getting enough daily exercise!

Eating carrots improves your eyesight.

While it’s true that you won’t see any rabbits wearing glasses, eating carrots won’t improve your vision. Carrots and other vegetables that contain vitamin A do help maintain healthy eyesight, but eating tons of veggies won’t help you get rid of glasses if you need them.

Fish is brain food.

Does eating fish make you smarter? This old wives’ tale actually has more than a grain of truth to it! Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that are very important for brain function.

If most old wives’ tales are false, why have they stuck around for so long? Some people believe it’s because they are harmless but can still serve a valuable purpose by discouraging unwanted behavior, especially in children.

Others think they survive because they offer comforting advice about common experiences that we worry about, yet have little control over.

 

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is an old wives’ tale?
  • Are most old wives’ tales true?
  • Why do so many old wives’ tales continue to be passed on?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Does your family have any old wives’ tales that have been passed down from generation to generation? If so, what are they? Do you believe in them? Why or why not?

Even if your family doesn’t have any old wives’ tales that have been passed down, you can make up your own old wives’ tale! You don’t have to be married or old. All you need is a little imagination.

First, think of an unwanted behavior you’d like to discourage. If you have a younger brother or sister, this step will probably be very easy!

Here are a few examples to help you get started: biting your nails, talking with your mouth full or drinking too many sodas.

Next, come up with a list of possible negative outcomes you could tie to the unwanted behavior you want to discourage. Try to think of things that are related to the behavior, so that your made-up old wives’ tale will have the “ring of truth” to it.

For example, if you want to discourage drinking too many sodas, you could claim that doing so will give you a sore throat.

Finally, brainstorm some ideas for a clever saying to tie the behavior you want to discourage to the possible negative outcomes you’ve thought of. The more interesting your saying is, the more likely it will be picked up and repeated as an old wives’ tale.

To continue with our soda-drinking example, you could say, “Sodas may float your boat, but too many will hurt your throat!”

When you’re finished, email or send your old wives’ tale to Wonderopolis HQ. We’d love to read what you come up with!

Wonderopolis HQ
325 West Main Street, Suite 300
Louisville, KY 40202-4237

 

Still Wondering

After thinking about old wives’ tales for a while, visit National Graphic Xpeditions’ Fairy Tales, Then and Now lesson to read an old fairy tale and put your own modern spin on it!

 

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