The Washington Times-Herald


January 26, 2012

An old writer's tale

WASHINGTON — Origins are fascinating. What was the first this or that? Who or what was responsible for it? Who thought that up? Who said that? How and why do certain things find their way into the lexicon of human knowledge and understanding?

Take for instance the largely debunked body of lore we commonly call, “Old Wives’ Tales.” Several questions come immediately to mind: Who was the first wife? Who was the first wife to grow old? Who was the first wife to grow old and tell tales? What does the adjective “old” modify? Does it mean that the women who first related the tale were elderly, or that the tale itself was of advanced years, a tidbit of enduring wisdom or misinformation as the case may be, that has been passed down through the ages from one chatty, insightful bride to the next?

History offers little in the way of satisfactory answers to these important threshold questions.

Other aspects of the genre are also inadequately explained. For example, why just “old wives?”  Why does the vast and delightful realm of feminine lore not include other surely fun-filled, richly informative genres such as, “Old Divorcees’ Tales,” “Old Spinsters’ Tales,” and “Old Lesbians’ Tales?” And why are there no companion “Old Husbands’ Tales?” They too might be interesting though as a general rule would be crude and, more often than not, limited to sports or motor vehicles.

And why “wives’” instead of “wife’s?”

The plural usage suggests that the first such tale was generated not by an individual wife but rather by a collection of them, a prehistoric sewing circle perhaps — several gruff and scary women sitting around a fire in a cave, stitching animal skins with bone shards and lengths of shredded mammoth sinew, complaining about the grooming habits of the clansmen for whom they toil. That these women all happened upon the same knowledge simultaneously and agreed to share collective credit seems, frankly, doubtful. More than likely, it was one particularly bold and savvy old wife who first decided to speak her piece and the rest simply followed her lead. That in mind, the genesis of two oft-repeated and venerable old wives’ tales may have gone something like this:

The oldest member of the late Paleolithic sewing circle squinted through the smoke and crackling embers at her youthful, uniformly wedded audience and told them her husband and young son had been hunting recently and her husband was injured during an encounter with a cave bear. Some of his wounds festered she explained, and he spiked a fever. Her brave and resourceful seven year old caught a cold while alternately dragging his father and the slain bear back to the safety of the clan, and upon arriving back at the home cave was quite miserable, coughing, sneezing, and blowing his nose repeatedly.

Referring to her husband as a “hoggish, foul smelling brute” — a description that prompted knowing glances and much laughter throughout the cave — she said she fed him vast portions of cave bear short ribs and later marveled at his diminished fever and speedy recovery. But, she hissed, “the wretched savage ate everything in sight,” leaving nothing for her poor son who received no nourishment whatsoever for several days during the ordeal. The boy was weak and occasionally cross with her she said, but his sinuses cleared and his cough went away.

She concluded the tale saying, incidentally, she discovered a toad in their cave and soon afterward her now emaciated but otherwise symptom free son developed warts.


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