Cottage old wives’ tales: true or false?

An illustrated "myth" and "fact" sign By Stuart Miles/Shutterstock

Old wives’ tales. Fact? Fiction? Either way, one thing is certain: “You would never coin such a term today,” says Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry professor and the director of the Office for Science and Society with McGill University. It’s a term with roots in early medicine—it goes back to a time when women were usually the ones concocting home remedies to treat ailments. “Most of the time, they didn’t work,” says Schwarcz. “But some had legitimacy.” The idea of using foxglove extract to treat heart conditions, for example, originally came from “a supposed ‘old wife,’ ” says Schwarcz. An old wife who, in fact, was correct: digitalis compounds from foxglove have since been used in heart medications for hundreds of years. Other tales—medicine-related or not—persist because “there’s a kind of truth to them,” says Schwarcz.

While nobody really believes that if you swallow an apple seed a tree will grow in your stomach, there is a reason to avoid eating them: the seeds release cyanide when they’re crushed. And when you hear the same stories often enough, even the strange ones, you begin to believe them, says Schwarcz. “A lot of these things become ‘true’ simply because of repetition.” Especially if you hear them during your formative years. “When you’re young and you hear stories, you have no frame of reference for them,” says Schwarcz. Therefore, you take them as truth. 

A lot of old wives’ tales are repeated more often at the cottage than anywhere else, we’ve discovered. And they’re often repeated by our elders. So, which are true and which are false?

No. 1 Don’t leave that tissue box at the back of the car! It could fly forward and kill one of us in a crash during the cottage commute! 

A tissue box? C’mon. But another “unsecured object” could, says Angelo DiCicco, the general manager for the Ontario Safety League. Or, at least, it could injure someone in the car. (DiCicco knows of a driver who needed stitches near the eye because of a flying garage door opener.) The tissue-box story “is meant to be a warning. The idea behind it is true.” Even if you brake suddenly on the highway, going quickly from 100 km/h to 30 km/h, “the loose objects in the car—a cell phone, a child’s toy—are still moving at 100 km/h,” he says. Imagine getting smoked in the face by a handful of Lego travelling at 100 klicks. Yeah. Ow.

The verdict? Mostly false.

No. 2 You’ll get sick if you go out in the cold with wet hair! 

No. You’ll get sick if you catch a virus. Your hair, even when it’s frozen and crunchy, won’t make this more likely.

The verdict? False.

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No. 3 It’s not safe to swim after eating! You need to wait at least 30 minutes! 

You don’t need to wait any amount of time before swimming after eating. At least, there’s no medical evidence to back up the theory that digestion will sap the blood from your limbs, cause muscle cramps, and then increase your risk of drowning. But any vigorous exercise after eating a huge meal—and, be honest, you probably over-indulge at the cottage—could cause you to vomit. And choke. And in the lake, drown.

The verdict? False (with the caveat re: vomit).

No. 4 If you stand near the window during a lightning storm, or shower during a lightning storm, you’ll get hit by lightning! 

Fair enough, Mom. This is possible. Possible, but not common. “The concern with taking a shower during a thunderstorm is the potential for lightning to strike the building and for some of that charge to travel through the plumbing,” says Geoff Coulson, a now-retired warning preparedness meteorologist. “Metal-framed windows can also conduct an electrical charge if they’re struck.”

The verdict? True. Technically.

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No. 5 Eat your carrots—it will improve your eyesight! 

Carrots contain beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A inside our bodies. And vitamin A is necessary for eyesight. But you probably weren’t deficient in vitamin A as a child—lots of foods contain it. And even if you were, increasing vitamin A levels to a normal range by diet alone would be a very slow process, says Robert Burke, an optometrist at the Calgary Vision Centre. Your parents really should have encouraged you to eat foods high in lutein, such as kale and spinach. Lutein helps ward off macular degeneration, says Burke.

The verdict? Kind of false. Plus, it’s the cottage! Eat a burger! Just…put some spinach on it.

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This article was originally published in the October 2021 issue of Cottage Life.

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