The Truth About Old Wives’ Tales

Discover the truth about old wives’ tales. Does the five-second rule really work? Will cracking your knuckles give you arthritis?

A woman eating chicken soup

A young woman with the flu blows on a spoonful of soup to cool while sitting in a bathrobe on the couch.

Photo by Fotolia/iofoto

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So there you were, jawing with a neighbor, when you suddenly heard your great-grandmother’s words come out of your mouth! But don’t worry; it wasn’t a case of past lives. No, you’ve been hit by … old wives’ tales.

Eons ago — sometime between banging on logs and logging onto the Internet — information was typically passed down by spoken word, and usually in the form of catchy little sayings that were easy to remember. Those sayings were called old wives’ tales — not because they came from old married ladies, but because “wife” was another word for “woman,” and women were more likely than men to share advice. At certain points in history, the term may have been somewhat derogatory, asserting that the advice given by older women should be doubted and even ridiculed.

Today, if you pay attention, you might be surprised at how much those old wives’ tales insert themselves into your everyday life. You can predict the weather by them, cook with them, stay healthy by following them — or can you? Where did Great-Granny get her knowledge? What was true, and how much was oh-so-wrong?

Health signs

The biggest category of old wives’ tales, it seems, involves myths on how to take care of yourself … but how many of them should you pay attention to?

Reading in dim lighting and/or sitting too close to the TV will ruin your eyes.

FALSE. According to experts, neither will ruin your eyes, but they can make your eyes tired or strained.

Chicken soup is the best remedy for a cold.

TRUE. Not only are there calories, carbs, protein and vitamins in the stuff, but scientists also say there are other things in traditional chicken soup that your body needs to fight off the virus and get rid of mucus. In addition, it’s hot, which warms the body. Gesundheit!

Crossing your eyes will cause them to stay that way.

FALSE. However, it might be fun to tell your preteen that it’s true about rolling her eyes, and see if she’ll believe it.

The Five-Second Rule is safe. (The “rule” says if you drop food on the floor but pick it up within five seconds, it’s safe to eat.)

FALSE. It doesn’t take nearly that long for germs, dirt, hair, fur, or other icky things to attach themselves to your edibles. So, considering what you undoubtedly drag in on the bottoms of your shoes every time you go in and out of the house, do you really want to tempt things here?

Appearance tell-tales

What about hygiene and appearance? We all know Great-Granny had something to say about how you presented yourself, but are her old wives’ tales about lookin’ good any help to you today?

Shaving will make your hair grow back thicker.

FALSE. It’s an illusion that may come from the stubbly roughness of the hair as it grows back, but shaving does nothing to the hair’s thickness or rate of growth.

Pulling out a gray hair will make more grow back.

FALSE. Pull all you want. It’s not going to increase the gray — only teenagers can do that.

If you laugh before 7, you’ll cry before 11; Laugh before breakfast, cry before supper.

FALSE. My own grandmother used to say this one, and it never made sense to me. I remember lots of shenanigans at breakfast, and nobody was in tears before lunch or cried before supper. Could she have been trying to tamp down early-morning horseplay? Maybe, but she was only right when she said it retroactively.

Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis.

FALSE — but only in the strictest sense. Driving Mom or Grandma insane with constant popping of the knuckles won’t give you arthritis, but it could cause later problems with the joints due to the stretching of cartilage that occurs when a person cracks his knuckles. That kind of damage, of course, is not the same as arthritis, though.

Garden and weather myths

Now for a look at some old wives’ tales about weather and the garden.

It’s bad luck to kill a bee/ladybug/spider.

FALSE. Killing a bee, a spider or a ladybug won’t bring you bad luck, but it is bad for your garden. All three are beneficial in various ways for your plants — and spiders kill other insects — so brush them gently aside, take them carefully outside, give them wide berth, and let ’em live.

You’ll get warts if you touch a frog or toad.

FALSE — though looking at a toad or frog might lead you to believe that their bumpy hides are contagious. Truth is, warts are caused by viruses that are not carried by garden amphibians. So go ahead, kiss that frog and find a handsome prince.

Treat a bee or wasp sting with mud.

TRUE — if that’s all you’ve got. If you’ve been buzz-bombed, making mud pies isn’t a bad idea, but ice would probably be a safer, less germy coolant, as would a paste made of baking soda and cool water, or aspirin and water. Scrape out the stinger first, though.

Touch a dandelion and you’ll wet the bed.

FALSE — but a little bit TRUE. Put your child’s mind to rest on this one. She can pick dandelions to her heart’s content. She can take a fistful of them to every neighbor within a 10-mile radius, and it won’t have anything to do with keeping the sheets dry. However, dandelion greens do have diuretic properties, so if she eats a mess of them in a salad, and she’s a heavy sleeper, there might be a middle-of-the-night laundry session in your future.

The full moon brings out the worst in people.

DEPENDS on who you ask. Most researchers will say that the moon and tides have nothing to do with behavior. Ask a doctor, a nurse, an emergency room worker, a policeman, or Great-Granny, though, and you’ll hear enough anecdotes to make you wonder if researchers might’ve missed something.

Cows lie down just before it starts to rain.

MAYBE — but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the weather. Cows lie down when they get tired of standing, when they want to chew their cud and meditate on life, or just because they want to lie down. Really … no bull.

A dog’s mouth is cleaner than yours.

FALSE — and I might add, ick. Have you seen what your dog eats? Have you seen where his tongue has been? A dog’s mouth  is filled with its own variety of germs, similarly to the population in the human mouth.

General old wives’ tale

And finally, the tale of all tales.

Grandma always knows best.

DEBATABLE — but even if I think not, I’m not going to tell her … are you?


Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and 11,000 books.