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OLD WIVES’ TALES: FACT OR FICTION? by Susan Schwarz

Blog | By Susan Schwarz | Jun 22, 2021

Copyright Science Museum

If you see someone taking 9 steps backward and spiting into his hat, he may be trying to avoid the effect of a black cat crossing his path. More superstition than anything else.

If it were an “Old Wives’ Tale” it might be a suggestion to live by, but it couldn’t be true. A truism disqualifies it as an “Old Wives’ Tale.” It can be comforting, give a feeling of security and confidence, but cannot be fact.

Without the benefit of scientific confirmation, advice and tradition are passed down the generational ladder and shared with friends. The sources for maxims, prophesies, warnings and helpful suggestions are often religious interpretations, superstitions motivated by fear and routine repetitions.

As an example of this, a word of mouth bit of folklore, from the grandmother of a friend, seems like nonsense, but crops up in different geographical areas, among people of diverse backgrounds.

It makes one wonder how and why these intense suggestions remained in the back of individual minds. During idea exchanges about “Old Wives’ Tales” it is not unlikely to be told that a belief is alive and well referring to the practice of having a piece of thread in the mouth of anyone having a hem pinned up in preparation for altering it. The reasoning, if you’ll excuse the expression, is that it is important to protect brains from the possibility of being sewn together. Since each head has only one brain, but it’s harmless to hold a strand of thread between the lips, why not yield to the peace of mind the action might bring if one feels it could hold the brain together.

Upon further reflection though, people do refer to having their brains scrambled or knocked out, so the use of the plural is not uncommon. The pervading thought about all these beliefs is that if catered to and peace of mind results without any harm, indulge yourself.

In the Roman era the priestesses were freed from their vows of chastity at 40. That is rumored to be the origin of the expesssion “Life begins at 40!”. Also virgins were believed to be able to carry water in a sieve. If one keeps a sense of humor sharpened through all this, the following advice to farmers on how to know when the soil was receptive to sowing barley would be included. Remove trousers and sit on the dirt and if the temperature isn’t uncomfortable on the bare bottom it is ready for the barley.

Some common circulating “Old Wives’ Tales” include the ones that advise disposing of an egg that has a blood spot. Not necessary, it’s a waste of a perfectly good egg. Another is that hair grows faster and thicker, after it’s been shaved or cut. That’s been disproved. However, it’s been recorded that men shaved their beards, historically, so that their enemies had less to take hold of during hand to hand combat. Prepare to be disillusioned when it comes to conch shells. They’re not what they’re cracked up to be.

Contrary to the notion that the sound of the sea emanates from its swirls, the construction of the shell is such that it absorbs and throws back the nearest surrounding noise. Therefore, if one is standing by a highway, the whoosh of the traffic is what the shell will pick up. (Too bad isn’t it?)

When it comes to birthday cakes, the name on it should never be cut and the icing should be smoothed over. Does breaking a mirror give seven years of bad luck? Generally people lose track of unfortunate occurrences over the years, so who knows?

Regardless of what they say about these beliefs not being true, I do get pimples when I’ve eaten too much chocolate, catch a cold from a draft, and am more tired from sleep gotten after midnight.

When I finished my research and writing and turned to leave the room, I heard my husband mutter, “There goes my old wife’s tail!”