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Old wives' tales

01:00 Mon 04th Feb 2002 |

Q. That is tales told by old wives and not old tales told by wives isn't it

A. Yes (check out the apostrophe) - though there's nothing to say that wives don't tell old tales. The traditional stereotype of a gossipy old woman is inherent in the term, as is the idea that the older members of society are founts of wisdom suitable for every occasion.

Q. Isn't an old wife a kind of fish

A. Several kinds, in fact, including the black sea bream, the wrasse and the queen trigger fish. It is also another name for a long-tailed duck as well as a cowl used to stop a chimney from smoking. In Middle English it meant an old woman - not necessarily a 'wife' - though over the centuries it became a derogatory term, and it is in this sense that it is used here.

Q. What are these tales, then

A. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines them as 'legendary lore or stories usually involving the marvellous and only accepted by the credulous', which pretty much sums it up, though the 'marvellous' doesn't always make an appearance. There are those who maintain that such tales are based in fact, but they have, in the manner of Chinese whispers, become distorted by the passage of time. This, however, is most likely just an old wives' tale.

Q. How long has the term been around

A. Since at least the 16th century. There was a play by George Peel, first performed in 1595, called The Old Wives' Tale, which was a satire on 16th-century romantic dramas and the first English work of its kind.

Q. And some examples of this venerable lore

A. There are hundreds. But here are a few by category:


If you spill salt you're supposed to throw it over your left shoulder immediately; that's because Old Nick appears above your left shoulder and if you don't throw the salt in his eye he'll have your immortal soul

In Britain black cats are considered lucky, whereas in Mediterranean countries and the USA, they are unlucky. Both these traditions are associated with witches: in the first case the witch has just crossed your path and ignored you (good), whereas, in the second, any encounter with a witch is bad

Breaking a mirror results in seven years' bad luck

Walking under a ladder produces immediate bad luck

Opening an umbrella indoors will bring bad luck

If you find a penny and it is heads down, don't pick it up as you will be picking up bad luck; however, if it is heads up, good luck will follow you for the rest of the day


Its a boy if - you are carrying the extra weight out front; the hair on your legs is growing faster during pregnancy; your feet are colder than they were before pregnancy; the father is gaining weight as well; the maternal grandmother has grey hair; the sum of the mother's age at conception and the number of the month of conception is even; a needle on a thread held over your belly moves in circles; your urine is bright yellow; you have been craving meats or cheeses

It's a girl if - you had morning sickness early in pregnancy; your chest development has been spectacular; you are craving sweets; your baby's heart rate is 140 or more beats per minute

Girls are carried high; boys are carried low


If you sneeze with your eyes open, they will pop out

Killing a spider will make it rain the next day

You will catch your death of cold by walking around with wet hair

If you pick your nose your finger will get stuck up there

A watched pot never boils

If you keep pulling faces, one day the wind will change and you'll stay that way


If you eat food standing up it's fat free

Eating carrots helps you see in the dark.

People only use 10 per cent of their brains

If you keep fiddling with that you will go blind

You should only eat shellfish when there is an R in the month.

Eating your vegetables will make your hair go curly

Don't swallow watermelon or tomato seeds or insect larvae because they will grow in your stomach

Chewing gum, if swallowed, will block up your stomach and you'll die

(Which ones have you always thought were true, then )

Read more about old wives' tales.

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By Simon Smith

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