Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Old wives’ tales – good or bad?

with 6 comments

William Withering was an English botanist, geo...
Image via Wikipedia

Can you really cure a hangover?

…asked The Times online a while back, and then went on to say:

Some remedies may actually work, but others are just old wives’ tales — or may even be bad for you.

‘Just old wives’ tales’, eh? In other words, information of no use that it would be best to ignore.

Good job William Withering (1741-1799) didn’t take this attitude. Credited with the discovery of digitalis (or foxglove) as an effective treatment for heart disease, he in fact learnt of this preparation from a woman, Mrs Hutton, who lived in Shropshire, England, and worked as a herbalist. She used digitalis as part of a formulation containing over 20 different ingredients to successfully treat heart conditions.

Wikipedia has an account of this, but – tellingly – doesn’t bother to mention the woman’s name.

Isn’t it interesting how the phrase ‘old wives’ tale’ is almost always used pejoratively? Here’s Oxford Dictionaries’ definition.

It’s another example of how the everyday words and phrases we use have such power — in this case to deny and denigrate the knowledge and wisdom women have traditionally passed down through the generations.

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?



6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Deborah, re old wives’ tales, are you not being over-sensitive? Not least because the term originated long before anyone actually cared whether it was pejorative or not. Because it really wasn’t.

    Oxford Dictionaries say:-

    “a widely held traditional belief that is now thought to be unscientific or incorrect,”

    when what the term originally referred to was the wisdom of the old women of the tribe, or community.

    And old women were often (note, I didn’t say always), held in higher regard than old men, who were good for little but sitting in the chimney-corner and spitting in the fire, reliving the battles and/or whoring of their youth, whereas “old wives” were the repository of practical knowledge, passed on to younger generations of women, who, in their turn, became old wives. For example, it was the old wives who were the midwives of communities, back then.

    Unscientific? Only with that wonderful thing, 20-20 hindsight, because such beliefs usually pre-date “science”.

    Wrong? Not always, and no more wrong, now, than much else that was believed, by men and women alike, back then. Just as what we believe, in 500-1,000 years time, will be.


    03/03/2011 at 11:54 pm

    • Hi, Ron — thanks for your thoughts on this. The points you make underline mine. However, I do believe that ‘old wives’ tales’ is — tellingly — used as a pejorative phrase when, as you rightly point out, there is no real reason for that to be the case. And it has a long history of being used in that way. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the English language has many more terms of abuse for women than men. Plus, words that relate to females are themselves often used as insults (‘big girl’; ‘old woman’). This makes the use of ‘old wives’ tales’ as a dismissive, pejorative term a double whammy: ‘wife’ becomes an insult and the term, as it is commonly used, also disrespects and undermines the legacy of female knowledge and wisdom it refers to.

      Men pass down knowledge and wisdom too (not as much we do, obviously) — but the phrase ‘old husbands’ tales’ was never coined, and if it had been, it would not now be used pejoratively. The scientific evidence that irrefutably proves that assertion would be too long to cite here.


      04/03/2011 at 7:34 am

  2. Wikipedia has an account of this, but – tellingly – doesn’t bother to mention the woman’s name.

    In fairness to Wikipedia, I should point out that the sources cited by that article don’t mention the woman’s name either.


    05/03/2011 at 10:01 pm

    • Hi, thanks. Even more telling, then!


      06/03/2011 at 6:11 am

    • Actually, Wikipedia mentions the woman’s name in the “Discovery of digitalis” section. It also says this woman was a myth, not an actual person.


      17/10/2017 at 7:41 pm

      • Excellent – the entry must have been updated since I last looked at it. It does refer to the ‘Mother Hutton myth’ but also states:

        In Withering’s Account of the Foxglove printed in 1785 Withering mentions 7 different occasions when foxglove was brought to his attention. Recognising that Foxglove was the active ingredient in a family recipe (that was long kept secret by an old woman in Shropshire) would not have been difficult with his expert botanical knowledge.

        … so the point re ‘old wives’ tales’ stands; ‘Mother Hutton’ being representative of females as the unacknowledged repository of knowledge and expertise.


        18/01/2018 at 6:50 pm

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: