The Norman Transcript

October 18, 2013

Old wives’ tales


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Do you put much credence in old wives’ tales?

Age tends to alter our assessment of what we are willing to believe or laugh off as horse pucky.

For example, when the nieces and nephews were children, they were more willing to believe the farfetched and strange things Aunt Liz told them. This magical state of acceptance also may be referred to as innocence. In any event, an off-hand remark I made hoping to lead them to some desired behavior had unexpected consequences.

“If you keep doing that, you’ll have hairy toes.”

Consequently, one niece blamed the hirsute condition of her toes on me. Then she wised up and later confessed her misdirected annoyance. Proving, once again, that with age wisdom follows, at least it should. In some cases, a blinkered viewpoint may cause a breakdown in the common sense process and such folks drift through life in the state of denial and/or self-induced ignorance.

According to that fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia, “an old wives’ tale is a term indicating a superstition or something deemed to be untrue . . . because women’s knowledge was not valued by men. The tales involved superstition, folklore or unverified claims with exaggerated and/or inaccurate detail.” Upon further investigation, instead of the usual brush off by brilliant men, some old wives’ tales have been validated.

The old tales were basically part of oral tradition, which is how knowledge was passed from generation to generation before books and the advent of social media. Quite frequently, the purpose of old wives’ tales was to teach a lesson and scare children to discourage unwanted behavior. Later, some of the tales were written down in the form of fairy tales by Brothers Grimm and others, again to teach lessons.

Under the “designed to encourage or discourage certain behavior” umbrella, there are several you have probably heard.

“If you eat the entire apple, an apple tree will grow in your stomach.” I’m still waiting for even one twig to sprout since I have always eaten the entire apple. I happen to like the taste of apple seeds.

“Wash your hands after touching a banana peel or you’ll catch leprosy.” The hand washing was a no-brainer. I’m a clean freak and do not like the banana peel residue on my hands. Leprosy is a highly contagious bacterial infection believed to spread through contact. Since bananas are a tropical fruit and one of the Hawaiian Islands, Kalaupapa, Molokai, had a leper colony in the 1800s, it is possible someone made the erroneous connection between leprosy and the fruit.

“If you don’t stop doing ‘that,’ you will go blind.” Various behaviors, such as reading in dim light, were associated with that particular threat, but none of them proved to be true, unless you simply close your eyes on purpose.

“Cats can steal the air from a baby’s mouth.” Perhaps the cat is attracted by the smell of milk on the baby’s breath. However, according to kidshealth.org, “it’s anatomically impossible for a cat or other animal to suffocate a baby by sealing the baby’s mouth with its own.”

“Wait an hour after eating before swimming.” Unless you ate a heavy fatty meal and plan to swim laps, feel free to dip those toes in the water. But sometimes an error is made in translating this old wives’ tale and it is loosely applied it to something similar.

The grandchildren of an acquaintance were heading for the shower after a late dinner and granny said, “You should wait at least 30 minutes.” After the spontaneous eruption of laughter, she saw her mistake.

Today, validated old wives’ tales have been renamed household hints. For example, plants in the home purify the air. Or, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze, those snot particles have to go somewhere.

Rule of thumb: If a kernel of wisdom sounds farfetched, do not believe it.

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and author. Her novels “The Dionysus Connection” and “The Marathon Man” are available on amazon.com. Visit her website: www.elizabethcowan.com.