“It is an old wise tale.”

Really, people, for the good of the rising generation, to prevent them from developing too much of a resemblance to their preliterate forebears who learned everything by ear and therefore came up with some fairly strange folksong lyrics and other linguistic perversions, please PRONOUNCE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY!

I grant that the consonant cluster “vs” is not all that easy to pronounce, but still.

I suppose we also don’t talk much about “old wives.” After all, they’re not the same as ex-wives, or first wives. Now, I wonder if my student would refer to these women as ex-wise and first-wise. Well, maybe he wouldn’t talk about wives in the plural at all: this is, after all, a monogamous nation.

“Old wives” never were actually elderly espoused females; they were old women (married, widowed, or never-married, didn’t matter). “Wife” derives from “wyf,” and “wyf” meant, first of all, “woman.” She remains generalized in “midwife”—being married is not one of the qualifications for this occupation. She is attached to some words that she might sell: fish-wife, oyster-wife. Emerging from Old English into the world of Middle English, she became more specifically a “woman of humble rank” (OED). By the 15th or 16th century such a woman had acquired an honorific: Where women of higher station were Mistress This and Mistress That (abbreviation: Mrs.), women of humble station became Goodwife This and Goodwife That (“Goody” for short, as in the two wives hanged as witches in Fairfield County in the mid 1600s, Goody Basset and Goody Knapp. Mrs. Staples was also accused, unsuccessfully. Did her class protect her? At least having a husband who brooked no nonsense and knew how to counter-sue protected her… Goody Knapp’s husband, on the other hand, seems to have been fairly inept and couldn’t even remember to bring his rifle to militia drills….)

Why did “Mrs.” and “wife” eventually attach themselves exclusively to married women? This I do not know. I would suspect that it had something to do with the fact that for as long as the title Mistress existed, most women of property married—increase the estate, ensure that the children would inherit. As marriage became more common among the “humble” classes, “she’s my woman” became “she’s my woman married to me,” and “she’s my wife” did for both.

At any rate, Old Wives are old women. Picture them sitting in the kitchen, sewing as the stew bubbles over the fire, happily and eagerly gossiping together. Were they particularly credulous because they were women, or because they tended to be less educated than men, or than ladies of property? At any rate, an old wives’ tale is most emphatically NOT assumed to be a wise one. They made up stories, they made up explanations, they reasoned post hoc ergo propter hoc, and the tidbits they passed around among themselves, and passed along to the younger women in the guise of wisdom, were tales taken for fact: old wives’ tales. That some of these OWTs, especially first-aid tips, have turned out to have at least a germ of truth in them should not surprise those of us who have all along believed women are worth listening to, but it has taken a few scientists aback.

My student didn’t think of old wives when he heard some sloppy pronouncer call something an “old wise tale” (or at least that’s what he thought he heard). Nor did he ask himself, “Why such contempt for it if it’s WISE?” He simply shrugged (maybe), added it to his stock of phrases, and proceeded to deploy it in similar contexts. Dare I say “This is the way the Word ends, not with a bang but a mumble”?

I wish I had written down which “old wise tale” he was referring to here, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Can you imagine dismissing something as “oh, just an old wise tale”?

Today, engaged in the traditional annual frenzied search for some crucial piece of paper (a tradition begun by my father many years ago—for him, usually practiced in the hours leading up to midnight on April 15—and observed by me ever since), I came across a grade book I hadn’t seen in awhile, and hadn’t used in awhile. I flipped to the back pages, and there was my reward: three new Horrors!

This has been one of them.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““It is an old wise tale.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Perhaps this is what you get when the “old wife” is also a wise guy.
    A common occurrence, I gather.

  • whitt88

    Oh yes, I know, and it’s not just in English. In French, some clowns propose dropping the title Mademoiselle in favour everyone (f) being Madam, for equality, unity and all, like Mr. For a word that grows in meaning as you learn French, why not drop Madam, if you must, and keep all females mademoiselles?

    • RAB

      “Mademoiselle” is so much more graceful. But in English, a boy (in, of course, a propertied family) becomes “Master” (Mr.) at about the age of twelve and continues so. The female equivalent is “Mistress.” When does “Monsieur” attach itself to boys in France (in a non-ironic sense)? When would a Mlle. have become a Mme., back before Mme also got so firmly attached to marriage? We could just freeze time (age 15, perhaps) and let people keep the honorifics they have at that moment? That would keep the professionals humble, too, if they couldn’t be called “Doctor” or “Senator” or “Your honor”….
      Your photos are beautiful, by the way. Sensitive and courageous.

      • whitt88

        Delightful, I stand corrected. I appreciate a site like yours where we learn to improve our faulty expression while chuckling over others’ errors and confused intentions; please feel free to catch me out too. As to the honour of being courageous, I must decline; carefree, risk-taker or even foolhardy would be more accurate. Merci beaucoup.

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