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An old wives' tale is any advice, usually given word-of-mouth, that shows little scientific prowess or understanding. It is almost always used pejoratively to slight whatever advice was received.

Starve a fever, feed a cold.

It probably began in Old England, as all good words and phrases have. About the time that "god-sibb" (godparent) was being kneaded into "gossip", a similar term was being coined for the often unwanted advice of maternal elders, related or not.

Tie a ring to a string.
Wave the string over a pregnant woman's stomach.
If it swings in a circle, it's a boy.
If it swings in a line, it's a girl.

The Jewish people have an excellent phrase for old wives' tales: bubbe-myseh, women's words, nonsense, foolishness. The term was almost exclusively used for advice on pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing at first. Soon the term faded into any sort of folk wisdom that had no real scientific basis, but showed better than expected rates of accuracy.

Cayenne pepper in your socks will keep your feet warm on cold nights.

In 1595, the British playwright and humorist George Peele wrote "The Old Wives' Tale", a three-act story intertwining various folk tales popular in his day. It tells the tale of Delia, a pretty young girl imprisoned by the evil elf king. Three royal brothers offer to free her. The first is foiled when he promises a ghost half of his gains in exchange for some assistance - when the ghost demands half of Delia, the prince refuses. The second is tricked by an old woman who is really a beautiful young witch; when he is mean to her, she curses him forever. The third, of course, is brave and true, and saves Delia, and they live happily ever after.

Two pieces of toast a day will help your penis grow.

Perhaps the most famous usage of the phrase is in Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale, his 1908 masterpiece of two sisters growing up in the changing world of the early 20th century. Shy Constance and robust Sophia both lead the most interesting lives - from Victorian England to Paris and World War I, from the Industrial Revolution to the vestiges of Nazism. Their lives and the era are shown in vivid color - perhaps no fictional biography has shown as much scope.

My knees are hurting - must be rain a'comin-.

1996 saw the release of Joy Electric's The Old Wives' Tales EP. Featuring 6 brand new songs and 2 remixes from their most recent full-length We Are The Music Makers, the essentially one-man project of Ronnie Martin continued its trend for bubbly electronic rock. Spinning further and further away from its Christian roots, the album's high point was the title track, a tale almost commanding you to always believe in magic, lest it die forever. A sugary success from start to finish, the album showed substantial growth in terms of mature lyricism and demanding song structures for the band.

Break a mirror and get seven years of bad luck.

Maybe you don't believe in any of it: superstition is bunk, you say. Some of it's true you know - peanut butter really will get gum out of your hair, and running a vacuum cleaner really will calm down a colicky baby. Some will be disproved in years to come, and some already so. Just remember: the next time someone tells you that Coke will make a penny shine like new, it might be best to consult a chemistry textbook before you head out for that six pack ...

Further Reading

  • The Old Wives' Tales - http://www.oldwivestales.net/
  • Urban Legends Revealed - http://www.snopes.com/

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