What are Old Wives' Tales?

Mary McMahon

Old wives' tales are superstitious stories which are passed down through multiple generations of a society. In some cultures, these tales are treated as factual; for example, in the west, many people believe that eating carrots will help them to see better at night. Scientific study actually shows that while eating carrots is certainly healthy, it will not contribute a noticeable improvement to night vision. In some cases, old wives' tales are harmless fun, but it other instances they can lead people into poor decisions, so it is a good idea to carefully evaluate folk wisdom before using it.

Chicken soup might not cure a cold, but it does offer health benefits.
Chicken soup might not cure a cold, but it does offer health benefits.

The term comes from the idea that older women are often wiser because of their life experiences. Many cultures look up to elders of their community, especially when it comes to information about various life issues, and in some societies older women offered healing services and general advice to help members of their community. These old wives sometimes provided helpful pointers, thanks to their experience.

Some people believe that ravens are associated with death.
Some people believe that ravens are associated with death.

Many old wives' tales are related to health, pregnancy, and puberty. Folk remedies, directions for determining the sex of your baby, and ways to avoid pregnancy are often old wives' tales, although some of these tails may have a few grains of truth. For example, eating chicken soup will not necessarily help someone improve from a cold, but chicken soup is a good source of nutrition which is easy to absorb, so it could help someone stay healthy so that his or her immune system could fight the cold off.

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Some old wives' tales are flat-out misconceptions, and they can be dangerous. For example, many old wives' tales prescribe various techniques for avoiding pregnancy, such as having intercourse standing up or exercising vigorously after sexual activity. These techniques are not actually effective for family planning, and they should not be used by people who are genuinely concerned about getting pregnant. Unfortunately, folk wisdom is so pervasive that these incorrect ideas are spread from peer to peer very rapidly, which can be dangerous when more effective information is not available.

In other instances, old wives' tales are simply common sense. Drinking lots of tea and juice, for example, helps the body flush out toxins, which can improve the recovery time from colds. Some old wives' tales also provide pointers on picking out food which is tasty and safe to eat; many people are familiar with the old technique of tapping a melon to see whether or not it's good, for example.

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Discussion Comments


One good example of a fairly common Old Wives Tale is the myth that shaving hair makes it grow back faster and fuller. My mother used to tell me that often, and she still insists that it’s true. There is simply no objective backing for this belief, it is simply a myth that is probably based off of someone’s subjective observation.

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