Old wives' tale

Old wives' tale

An old wives' tale is a type of urban legend, similar to a proverb, which is generally passed down by old wives to a younger generation. Such "tales" usually consist of superstition, folklore or unverified claims with exaggerated and/or untrue details. Today old wives' tales are still common among children in school playgrounds. Old wives' tales often concern pregnancy, puberty and nutrition.[1]

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.

Most old wives' tales are false and are used to discourage unwanted behavior, usually in children, or for folk cures for ailments ranging from a toothache to dysentery. Among the few tales with grains of truth, the veracity is likely coincidental.[1]

The concept of old wives' tales is ancient. In the 1st century, the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy, "But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself [rather] unto godliness" (I Timothy 4:7 KJV[2]).


  • Ice cream leads to nightmares.
  • Toes pointed up signify low blood sugar.
  • High heart rates lead to female fetuses.
  • If you step on a crack you'll break your mother's back/step on a line and break your mother's spine.
  • Breaking a mirror will earn a person seven years of bad luck.
  • Don't swallow gum or it will stay in your stomach for seven years.
  • Various other stories, all resulting in "seven years" of something.
  • It's bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.
  • Don't make silly faces or your face will stay that way forever.


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. [3]

These tales were often 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 heros, and turned them into morality tales for children. [4]

See also


  1. ^ a b KidsHealth: Old Wives' Tales
  2. ^ Blue Letter Bible – 1 Timothy 4:7
  3. ^ The Guardian, 15 May 2010, Greer, Germaine. "Grandmother's footsteps" http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/15/germaine-greer-old-wives-tales
  4. ^ Zipes, Jack. "The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood," Routledge, 1993 ISBN 0-415-90834-5

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