What does the idiom "an old wives' tale" mean?

The phrase an old wives' tale is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of an old wives' tale.

Meaning of "an old wives' tale"


An old wives’ tale is an old piece of traditional wisdom or information that is often seen as superstition or lack of scientific reason. It refers to a type of story, often passed down through generations, that is used to explain natural phenomena or give advice on topics related to health, well-being, or life experiences. Sometimes these stories contain nuggets of wisdom, while others are misinformed, outdated, and potentially harmful. In most cases, an old wives’ tale is seen as an unreliable source of information.


The expression ‘old wives’ tale’ first appeared in the mid-15th century, and can be traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th-century poem The Canterbury Tales. In the poem, the Wife of Bath tells a story about a woman who was believed to be a witch, and the phrase was used to mock her and her tale. Over time, the phrase evolved to refer to any unfounded story or unscientific advice.


The expression ‘old wives’ tale’ is often used to describe an incorrect belief or superstition. It is generally seen as an insult, since it implies that a person is naïve or misguided in their beliefs. For this reason, it is important to be careful when using this phrase. Sometimes it can be appropriate to use it to describe a belief that is not based in science, but it should not be used in a derogatory way.

Example Sentences

  • "My grandmother always believed that walking under a ladder was bad luck—such an old wives' tale!"
  • "The doctor told him it was just an old wives' tale that eating carrots would improve your eyesight."
  • "My mom always warned me to wear a coat when it was cold, but I learned the hard way that it wasn't just an old wives' tale!"

The meanings of the words in the "an old wives' tale" idiom

The universal role of idioms

"Kill two birds with one stone" is an English idiom that means to accomplish two things with a single action. In French, the similar idiom is "Faire d'une pierre deux coups," which translates to "To kill two birds with one stone." This idiom highlights the efficiency of completing two tasks with one action.


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