Old wives' tale

From Academic Kids

An old wives' tale is a wisdom much like an urban legend, supposedly passed down by old wives to a younger generation. Today old wives' tales are also common among children's peer sex education in school playgrounds. Old wives' tales often concern pregnancy, puberty and nutrition.

Some old wives' tales are true, and those that aren't often have roots in truth or are used to trick people into doing something.


Common old wives' tales

Eating carrots improves your night vision


Carrots do contain vitamin A, which helps to maintain healthy vision, but they do not contain enough to make any significant difference. This tale started in the Second World War when the British spread a rumour that their plane spotters were eating carrots to give them improved vision, concealing the truth about the invention of radar.

Chocolate causes acne


Chocolate does not cause acne; in fact, there is little evidence that one's diet affects acne at all. This is an example of an old wives' tale used to discourage something (the large quantities of chocolate some children eat is unhealthy in other ways) by associating it with something that people are afraid of.

Staying out in the cold without a coat causes pneumonia


Pneumonia is caused by bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae. Variations on this tale include that someone who stays out in the cold will catch a cold (which is known to be caused by a virus).

This tale was not debunked until fairly recently. As public awareness of the cause of disease increased, the tale evolved to include a number of different pseudoscientific explanations. One popular explanation is that a low core body temperature negatively impacts the effectiveness of the human immune system. This intuitively makes sense, as we know fever, an elevated core body temperature, is one of the immune system's defenses against infection. However, studies have shown that there is no statistical correlation between lowered core body temperature and decreased immune response. Still, this old wives' tale, in its modern, pseudoscientific version, is still prevalent.

Stepping on a rusty nail causes tetanus

It's neither the rust nor the nail

It is not the rust on the nail that is contributory, rather it is the nature of the wound. Any deep wound that heals over first at the surface can result in an infection protected from oxygen. Under such anaerobic conditions the tetanus bacterium can flourish in a person not appropriately vaccinated. The tetanus bacterium is commonly present both on skin and in soil. Before the availability of vaccine for tetanus the best treatment would be to keep the wound open so that it would heal from the bottom up.

Other old wives' tales

  • Shaving/cutting hair makes it grow thicker than before. (in fact, it leads to a coarse appearance since the thicker middle of the hair is exposed at the end, and the lack of flexibility makes the short hair feel rough as it begins to grow back)
  • Eating the crust of bread makes your hair curl.
  • A pimple on your tongue means that you have lied.
  • If your chin does not shine yellow when you hold a buttercup underneath it then you do not like butter.
  • Don't cross your eyes; they might stay that way.
  • If you go swimming less than an hour after you've eaten, you'll get cramps.
  • If you smell dandelions, you'll wet your bed.
  • If you touch a toad, you'll get warts. (warts are caused by a virus, and the growths on the back of a toad or its related animals are naturally present)
  • If you feel a burning in your ears, it means that somebody is talking about you.
  • If you sneeze suddenly, someone is talking about you behind your back or thinking about you.
  • If a man has big feet, big hands, big ears, or a big nose, or if he is black, it means he has a big penis. (See ethnic stereotype.)
  • If you have stye, you must have had read or watched pornographic materials.
  • If your eyelids keep on blinking, something significant (either good or bad) is going to happen to you soon.

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