Whether you call it traditional wisdom, superstition or codswallop, the universality of the ‘old wives’ tale’ is remarkable. They are probably as old as language itself and tend to concern those areas of life which are important, but where we have least control, such as childbirth, sickness, weather and death. Many are handed down within families and are intended to warn children off unwanted behaviour. They show no sign of disappearing, and indeed the internet seems to have given many a new lease of life. Even modern medicine and technology, far from killing them off, seem to have spawned a fresh new crop of superstitions about the perils of technology.
‘Wife’ in this context dates back to the Anglo-Saxon wif, where it originally meant ‘woman’ rather than female spouse (like in ‘midwife’). Given the domestic nature of much of the advice, this makes sense: in many traditional cultures old women tend to be the arbiters of behaviour and keepers of wisdom in the home.
Not true: Eating bread makes your hair curl.
There is some truth behind these Old Wives’ Tales:
Baldness skips a generation.
There isn’t a single ‘hair-loss’ gene but pattern baldness is caused by the interaction of several different genes that can be inherited from either parent.
Shaved hair grows back thicker.
Hair width is determined by follicle size and shape which are unaffected by shaving. It may look or feel thicker though, because the ends are stubbly, due to the razor.
Knuckle cracking causes arthritis.
If done constantly it can cause swelling and restrict hand flexibility, but age and genetics are much more significant in the development of arthritis.
Reading in dim light ruins your eyes.
It might make your eyes tired, because the muscles are having to work harder, which in turn makes reading harder, but it won’t do any lasting damage, any more than running damages your legs.
Feed a fever, starve a cold.
In either case it’s important to keep the level of nutrients up to fight infection. The biggest risk in both is dehydration.
Masturbation causes blindness.
It doesn’t. However, semen does contain a high level of zinc and zinc deficiency can speed up macular degeneration leading to loss of sight. But based on a daily requirement of 11mg of zinc, and the 0.75ml contained in the average teaspoon of ejaculate, you’d have to ejaculate 15 a day over an extended period to start seriously lowering the zinc levels in your body.
These Old Wives’ Tales are mostly true:
Thumb sucking causes buck teeth.
It can, but only in children over four whose adult teeth have started to arrive. It makes no difference to milk teeth.
Blind people can hear better to compensate for their loss of sight.
This is only true for people born blind, or who go blind before the age of two because the brain centres for hearing, sight and other senses are still connected at this point.
Stepping on a rusty nail causes tetanus.
It can, but it’s the dirt on the nail which causes is to blame, not the rust. Tetanus is caused by strain of bacteria that thrives in moist conditions, such as skin or soil.
Fish is brain food.
Omega-3 fatty acids, highly concentrated in oily fish, are essential to brain function. Mercury, however is also highly concentrated in these fish in some areas, which rather undoes the good work, leading to impairment of sight and hearing, uncontrollable shaking and hallucinations.
Never drink from the hot tap.
Hot water dissolves the contaminants in pipes more quickly than cold water. 20% of lead poisoning cases relate to tap water, as even new pipes contain up to 8% lead. Boiling hot water only leads to a higher concentration of contaminants.
Eat your crusts.
They may not make you hair curl, but they do contain eight times as much health-promoting antioxidant as the rest of the loaf.
Not true: Sties mean you’ve been reading or watching porn.
Not true: Make a face and if the wind changes you’ll stay like that forever.
Not true: Mount Everest is so called because when you reach the top you want to rest for ever.
Not true: Swallowed chewing gum wraps around your lungs and slowly chokes you.
Assure a man that he has a soul and then frighten him with old wives' tales as to what is to become of him afterward, and you have hooked a fish, a mental slave.