Old wives’ tales – what would we do without them?

Mystery Family 2012-09-30The term old wives’ tale is a critical and disparaging tag applied to traditional old fashioned stories handed down orally by word of mouth from generation to generation – from grandparent to grandchildren, from relative to relative, from sibling to sibling, from neighbour to neighbour (in this context wives [Middle English wiven, from Old English wīfian, from wīf, woman.] are given the credit particularly as the female is renowned for being able to verbally recount a good story!).

The implication of this critical designation is that a particular storyline is a myth, untrue, exaggerated, or is based on superstition and prejudice, so therefore anyone believing it is short of a full deck! The fact is though that old wives’ tales are at worst a bit of good harmless fun, often are useful, and at best have been proven to be actually well founded! There is no doubt though that many such tales have been invented to keep people in check, especially children – that has been going on for many thousands of years.

Such tales can be used to pass on information in an easy to understand manner, give warnings of risk and danger, and deal with potential fears that concern ordinary people. Often with the passage to time these tales get recorded in the written word, well elaborated and enhanced, and so end up as stories in books, to the delight of both adults and children.

Many have survived throughout the ages because of their reassuring advice about life, particularly those aspects that people have little control over and fret about – hence many concern themselves with pregnancy, illness, and wealth (more modern ones address aspects of our new technological world.
Let’s look at a few!

Teenagers eating too much chocolate get acne.
This tale is a good ploy, used by parents everywhere for a hundred years or more, to get their kids to stop raiding the chocolate drawer. But there is no evidence whatsoever that it is true! It will however remain a valuable tool for parents, and it indeed will give some comfort to teenagers who suffer from such a skin complaint – as it will give them an explanation for their unwelcome condition (medical science is yet to establish how diet affects a particular individual’s skin!). Tale is likely to be false

Fish is brain food.
Omega-3s get a lot of publicity (mostly in advertising supplements) as a unique type of fat (polyunsaturated fatty acids) which is good for you and cannot be made by the body. Fish (especially caught rather than farmed, and oily ones like sardines & salmon) are a predominantly good food source for omega-3, which has been found to be very important for brain function. However, a word of caution: fish can be associated with a toxicity risk –especially the heavy metal mercury, generally in the form of methylmercury. Lakes and oceans worldwide have a variable amount of mercury, some of which is naturally occurring and some of which is due to pollution. Mercury tends to accumulate and become most concentrated in large, predatory fish (like shark, swordfish, tuna ) which should best be avoided, or limited, by pregnant women and small children. [Other good brain food includes wholegrain, blueberries & blackcurrants, tomatoes, broccoli, sage, pumpkin seeds, vitamin-B, vitamin-E (nuts). So the tale is basically true.

Gain a child lose a tooth.
The tale is that calcium is lost from a mother’s teeth and that one tooth is lost with every pregnancy. Pregnancy forces a surge in estrogen and progesterone hormones, which can change the way gum tissues react to plaque, resulting sometimes during pregnancy in uncomfortable swelling or bleeding or worse. Pregnancy does not automatically damage a mother’s teeth however [If the mother’s intake of calcium is ‘inadequate’ during pregnancy, her bones, and not her teeth, will provide the calcium her growing baby needs.Many of us were convinced of this one, but there it is – false.

Eat your crust – it’s good for you
Some picky adults balk at eating the crust from bread and even throw away the crusty end slices. Baking bread in the oven commences a complicated chemical process (with carbon combining with amino acids etc) and produces a wholesome food with a crust: this crust has been shown to be a powerhouse of antioxidants (enzymes that combat cancer), and is rich in dietary fiber (fiber that can help the digestive system and prevent col;on cancer). The antioxidants are 8 times greater in the crust, so it is madness not to eat it. Many parents though encourage their children to eat their crusts (probably to save waste) – which youngsters can be reluctant to do because they take a bit more chewing! The kids are told it will give them curly hair – this myth is probably based on the historic association of curly locks with the better off families which could afford more bread,. Another very valuable and true tale.

Wait an hour after eating before swimming.
It is NOT a good idea to swim strenuously immediately after a substantial meal (or indeed eat in the water and risk choking), so there is some sensible advice here, though the tale would be officially classified as ‘false’.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
This must be one of the best known popular fun tales, around for hundreds of years. An old proverb recorded says “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”
Can a meager apple stave off health problems? Is there a grain of truth here? The apple is a good source of pectin which lowers blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol, and helps the digestive system: it provides boron which supports strong bones and a healthy brain: another component is quercetin, a nutrient which may reduce the risk of lung and breast cancers, and a variety of age-related health problems, including Alzheimer’s: then there is Vitamin C which boosts immunity: it is rich in phytonutrients, including vitamins A & E and beta carotene, which can help heart disease, diabetes and asthma: it then also acts as a toothbrush, cleaning teeth and killing bacteria in the mouth, preventing tooth decay. Looks like the apple has its health benefits so an apple a day will go a long way towards keeping the doctor away, so though most of us disbelieved it, shall we call that one true?

Too much TV is bad for your eyes.
A newer one. It doesn’t matter how close you sit to the TV, or how much you watch it, you can’t really harm your eyes this way (whatever rubbish is on). Kids watch far too much television these days, so this is a good excuse to get them away from the box and get them to go out for a healthy walk! Too much TV destroys family life, can cut life expectancy, causes depression, aggression, and even obesity in the extreme cases – in children it can promote brain changes, poor learning capability, and lose of social and motor skills. So specifically false as a tale, but nevertheless a valuable behavioral pointer.

Thumb sucking causes buck teeth.
Babies suck their thumb in the womb and routinely continue after birth and into early adolescence, with no harm done to teeth or jaw development. [Chimpanzees, a fellow primate, show similar reflex behaviours]. However if this ‘innocent & common’ habit continues while the permanent teeth, gums, and jaw, begin their most significant growth after about age four or five, then disfigurement (such as buck teeth, abnormal teeth alignment, or the shape of the mouth ruin) can indeed result, more than ever if intense. It is not solved by parents substituting a soother/ dummy/ pacifier as this will have the same affect and can cause severe dental problems. So while this tale (which also includes fingers) doesn’t apply to the youngest children, it falls in the category of true.

An Itchy Palm is a predictor about money.
An itchy right palm is an indication of money coming-in to the individual – but it won’t come however, if the person scratches it. If though the left palm itches, it means they will have to pay someone else, so the person should scratch it on a piece of wood to stop that happening. [Touching or rubbing wood is a very old superstition for transferring or releasing unwanted energy – hence expressions like “touch wood”/“knock on wood” to bring luck or ward-off bad penalties). In Palmistry it is said that the left hand is the passive or receptive hand, and the right is the active one, and itching palms show new internal energy moving through the hands (when the left palm itches, look for new energy or services coming into your life, but this will cost you some money: the right palm itching means energy or services going out so is work you will get paid for! Best you go with the flow isn’t it? This tale is either true or false.

Feed a cold, starve a fever.
Most people totally fall for this one. Both illnesses can cause dehydration due to fluid loss so drinking liquids is desirable, and food is beneficial also in maintaining digestive function and providing energy and nutrients, so the advice is false – sorry.

Too much loud noise can cause hearing loss.
The media is full of information about claiming compensation for tinnitus (a ringing in the ears) and hearing loss. Usually such ‘noise induced’ damage results from working without proper ear protection in excessively loud or banging environments like factories, or with heavy machinery, or with tools like pneumatic Jack Hammers and compressed air hammers, or in nightclubs, or even with firearms or explosives, It is astounding then that we find our younger generation addicted to loud, pounding music at raves & concerts, or listening to it on iPods & MP3s at very high volume on personal earphones, with scant regard to the potential consequences. The inner part of the ear contains tiny hair cells which translate sound into electrical signals which nerves then carry to the brain. Very loud sounds causes the eardrum to vibrate violently, and the excessive noise damages these tiny hairs; while minor damage caused by lower levels of sound are reversible, major damage caused by exposure to persistent & extremely loud music can be permanent. {It is predicted that exposure to loud music will cause as many as fifty million Americans to suffer hearing loss by 205]. Unfortunately and sadly this tale is only too true.

Reading in dim light will damage your eyes.
An old one this. Reading in poor lighting conditions will make reading difficult and can quickly cause eye fatigue, but cannot actually harm the eyes. Ageing is the factor that puts people at greater risk for eye problems, or even serious eye disease – but loss of sight need not become a problem Practical preventive measures can help protect against harm and a high proportion of all blindness can be avoided or treated, with detection in proper eye tests. Doing eye exercises is ineffective, reduction in glasses wearing will only strain & tire the eyes, and overuse of the computer will contribute to eyestrain (tired eyes), but will again will not cause actual harm. Blinking is a good habit, particularly if having to stare or do close work, as this lubricates the eyes. Most of us believed this one but just another false tale.

Don’t drink the water that comes out of the hot tap.
In many homes the hot tap water comes from a tank, which itself is often fed from an unsealed cold header tank. This means that foreign bodies and other contaminants can feely enter the hot water system – such hot water is therefore dangerous and extremely unsafe to drink. Some other hot water systems provide water from a boiler unit drawing the cold water directly from the rising main – theoretically the water should not be contaminated, but it is going through a heating process and unit that could cause harmful minerals to get dissolved in it, so again hot water is not drinking water. This tale is only too true.

Eating carrots will improve your eyesight.
Many vegetables including carrots are high in vitamin A, so indeed do help maintain healthy eyesight, but eating shed loads won’t improve your vision! [Several other vitamins and minerals are also essential for healthy eyes – leafy greens, eggs, citrus & berries, almonds, fatty acid fish, all contain valuable antioxidant vitamins]. This tale is accompanied by another old wives’ tale that it was started during World War II, because the British spread gossip that their fighter pilots were able to shoot down invading German aircraft after dark because our pilots had remarkable ‘night vision’ due to eating lots of carrots (this was, it is said, to mask the use of radar). This latter tale can be taken with a high pinch of salt, because the Germans also had effective radar at that time So both tales are indeed false, but with sufficient truth value to get little Johnny to eat-up his veg!.

If you go outside with wet hair, you’ll catch your death with a cold.
Common colds are caused by viruses. In winter viruses tend to spread from person to person more easily, because people are more likely to be huddling together indoors in a warm, dry air environment and in close proximity. There are a number of other factors that contribute to or increase the risk of acquiring a cold. Risk factors include age (young children have immature immune systems, are in close contact with others, and don’t hand wash); immune systems (weakened by sleep deprivation, stress, & allergies).So chills, cold, or even wet hair is NOT the cause of a cold, but there is a risk of lower resistance to infection of course. So the tale is predominately false.

You can predict the sex of the unborn baby
Advances in modern medicine have taken all the fun out of trying to establish the sex of a baby in the womb. Women can now find out the sex of their baby five months before it is born with ultra sound – this is a bit like opening your Christmas presents in July! In past generations other techniques were required: we had the Shape of Belly – carrying high with a big round belly, means a girl, but carrying low with a smaller belly that sticks straight out shows a boy: Ring Test – hang your wedding ring on a string over your pregnant belly –and it is a girl if the ring swings back and forth or it’s a boy if it swings in a circle: Key Test – pick up a key and if you grab it at the top the roundest part it is a boy, but. If you pick up the key at the bottom smallest part it is a girl and If you happen to grab the key in the middle, it’s twins (no cheating now!): Necklace Over Hand – someone needs to hold a necklace over the Mum-to-be’s hand, and if the necklace swings back and forth its a girl, but. If it moves in a circle it’s a boy. Some people are convinced that such tests are accurate and good predictors, so in the absence of any scientific or historical evidence perhaps we should give this tale the benefit of the doubt and say it is true?

Don’t cut your nails or hair on a Friday or the Devil will be on your back all week
This is a Northern one in England, and similar rules apply in various countries. You see it is very important to avoid misfortune and bad luck, so best follow this one? An old rhyme about cutting hair and nails:
Cut them on Monday, you cut them for health;
Cut them on Tuesday, you cut them for wealth;
Cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for news;
Cut them on Thursday, a new pair of shoes;
Cut them on Friday, you cut them for sorrow;
Cut them on Saturday, see your true love tomorrow;
Cut them on Sunday, the devil will be with you all the week
Bit of conflicting advice here so possibly we should say the tale is false?

Long Labour Means a Boy
This wouldn’t seem to be a runner – how can the length of labour be related by the gender of the baby? Why should a male baby linger longer in the womb at birth, have complications so take longer to deliver than a female? This proposition is refuted in many quarters and certainly obstetricians don’t seem to say that either. However, a study on first time mothers published in the British Medical Journal, found that male births were significantly more likely to result in longer labour and more likely to require the hormone oxytocin (to stimulate contractions), fetal blood sampling, use of an instrument like forceps in delivery, or birth by Caesarean section. There is apparentlyno kind of medical explanation why this should be so, but we can say confidently that it is not an old wives’ tale”. Surprisingly the tale is true

[Were some of you surprised on some of the Old wives’ tales that turned out to be true?]

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