Old wives' tale is an epithet used to indicate that a supposed truth is actually a superstition or something untrue, to be ridiculed. It can be said sometimes to be a type of urban legend, said to be passed down by older women to a younger generation. Such "tales" are considered superstition, folklore or unverified claims with exaggerated and/or inaccurate details. Old wives' tales often center on women's traditional concerns, such as pregnancy, puberty, social relations, health, herbalism and nutrition.
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.
Old wives' tales often discourage unwanted behavior, usually in children, or for folk cures for ailments ranging from a toothache to dysentery.
The concept of old wives' tales has existed for centuries. In 1611, the King James Bible was published with the following translation of the Apostle Paul writing to his young protégé Timothy, "But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself [rather] unto godliness" (I Timothy 4:7 KJV).
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 do not attempt to moralise, but to teach lessons and make difficult concepts like death or coming of age easy for children to understand. These stories are also used to scare children so they don't do certain things.
These tales have often been 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 heroes, and turned them into morality tales for children.
Examples of Old Wives' Tales
Examples of old wives' tales include: