A Word to the Wise: Traditional Advice and Old Country Ways

A Word to the Wise: Traditional Advice and Old Country Ways

by Ruth Binney


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Monday, December 13


If you've ever wondered whether carrots improve your vision (they do) and why elephants have great memories, consult A Word to the Wise. You'll discover that it's never too late to learn from a proverb or an old wives' tale. This captivating book is a fascinating compilation of age-old expressions and customs, and its insights cover everything from health tips and kitchen tricks to gardening know-how and hints for predicting the weather.
Folklorist Ruth Binney explains the truth behind such traditions as polishing windows with newspaper and blowing out birthday candles in a single breath. She also discusses whether classic adages are still relevant or, like eating oysters only in "R" months, their truths have faded with the passage of time. This charmingly illustrated volume of enduring wisdom makes a splendid keepsake as well as a fine gift.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486828732
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/17/2019
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ruth Binney has been studying nature for more than 50 years. She holds a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University and is a bestselling author, having published numerous books on gardening, the countryside, and country sayings and customs. Her Dover titles include Animal Lore and Legend and Plant Lore and Legend.

Read an Excerpt



Good luck in life and love, as well as wealth, health and happiness, are the things that we all desire, exactly as our forebears did. Hundreds of sayings relate to these universal concerns, many of them also advising on ways of keeping the wheels of friendship in particular, and society in general, well oiled. Many of these maxims involve superstitions – charms and omens that touch every part of our lives, from day-to-day detail to the big events such as falling in love and marrying. Many also link to the annual round, punctuated by festivals and celebrations. Although these may have their roots in pagan customs, they also have strong connections with religion, as well as with maintaining good relationships with friends and neighbors.

Good advice on how to live your life, and the things you should value, comes from well-known sources such as the Bible's Book of Proverbs and the works of Shakespeare, but also from anonymous sages and, in more recent times, popular songs. While life today may be much more ordered and predictable than it was when many of these sayings originated, chance and superstition still play their parts – which is why so many of us still fear bad luck if we walk under a ladder or break a mirror.


This is the way, it is said, to make a secret wish come true, but to cry on your birthday is to cry all year. In celebrating birthdays the ancient Greeks honored the birthday of Artemis, goddess of the moon and fertility.

To celebrate the birthday of Artemis the Greeks would light candles on her altar, but her benign favors were granted only if these were blown out with one breath.

Birthdays were probably first celebrated in Egyptian and Persian households in the 5th century BC, but the birthday cakes and parties of modern times date back only as far as the 19th century. Even then children, while presented with modest gifts, were also treated to lessons in morality and good behavior. Typically, they would be given a saying or motto, such as "Do your duty like a soldier and a man," or "A friend in need is a friend indeed," to live up to in the year ahead.

The words of the song "Happy Birthday to You," written by Clayton F. Summy in 1935, were not the first to be put with this tune. The song was originally called "Good Morning to All" and was written in the USA in 1893 by the teacher Patty Smith Hill. The music was composed by her sister Mildred J. Hill.


Anonymity is an essential element of the cards sent by would-be lovers on February 14. Rather than celebrating one of the little-known saints called Valentine, these romantic tokens probably descend from the traditions of the bawdy pagan fertility festival of early spring, known to the Romans as Lupercalia.

There were several St. Valentines, but two with February 14 as their feast day. Both were Christian martyrs of the 3rd century, one a Roman priest, the other a Roman bishop, although neither is known to have had any connection with love.

The anonymity of a Valentine card stems from the medieval custom (still being practiced in Scotland in the 1860s) that on St. Valentine's eve a woman who was not yet married or betrothed could be won as a bride in the Valentine lottery. This is also thought to be the origin of the superstition that if you are single the first person of the opposite sex you see on the saint's day is your prospective partner.

The practice of sending Valentine cards was begun, it is said, by Charles, duc d'Orléans, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following the defeat of the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. However, the first cards decorated with hearts, cupids and lovers' knots were made in the 16th century.

The date of St. Valentine's Day is said to relate to the time when birds start to mate. Shakespeare refers to this notion in A Midsummer Night's Dream with the lines: "Good morrow friends./Saint Valentine is past:/ Begin the wood-birds but/To couple now!"


This is just one of many superstitions about mirrors, which have been prized for more than 7,000 years. While a broken mirror is also said to foretell a death in the family, the proverbial warning to the vain is that too much mirror gazing will make the Devil appear.

It was by polishing the volcanic mineral obsidian that the people of the Middle East and northern Italy made the first mirrors. These were small hand mirrors used during one's personal hygiene. Only when the Venetians discovered how to silver glass in the mid 16th century could large mirrors become expensive decorations for the home; the first patent for their manufacture in Britain was obtained in 1615 by Sir Robert Mansell.


* Covering the mirrors, or turning them to the wall, in a room where a dead body is laid out prevents the soul of the departed from being carried off by their ghost.

* Mirrors must always be covered in a thunderstorm.

* If a couple first catch sight of each other in a mirror, their relationship will be a happy one.


An encouragement to make the most of your opportunities while they last, this saying has its roots in the blacksmith's shop and resonances in the domestic duties carried out in times past.

Since the Iron Age, which began around 1500 BC, heating iron and beating it while red hot into anything from knife blades to plowshares has been central to societies around the world. The smith – and the power of his fire – were much revered in many cultures. According to the ancient Romans, the god Vulcan had his workshop in the fiery heart of Mount Etna in Sicily. Eruptions from the volcano were, they believed, the sparks flying from his smithy, where he made thunderbolts for Jupiter, the ruler of the skies.

The first heated domestic irons, which were filled with hot coals, were used in the Far East in the 8th century BC. Box irons of a similar design were used until the 17th century, when solid flatirons, which could be heated directly on the stove, were introduced. Keeping irons hot demanded constant vigilance. If the heat of the stove was allowed to slacken then the irons would be too cool, but the wise housemaid would make sure that she had several "irons in the fire" to cover every eventuality.

The first electric irons were patented in the USA by Henry Seely in 1882. The ironing board is said to have been "invented" by the Vikings, who spread their clothes on whalebone plaques and smoothed them with wooden rollers, but even well into the 20th century many housewives did their ironing on a kitchen table padded with folded sheets or towels.


Although the ancient supposition that the nerve in this finger links directly with the heart is now discredited by accurate studies of anatomy, many people still believe that this positioning of a ring symbolizes the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

From the Middle Ages it was customary at a wedding for the priest to place the wedding ring over each finger in turn, beginning at the index finger, saying, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen." But the wearing of a wedding ring goes back much further than this. The earliest known have been dated to about 12000 BC, in Sumeria, where they may have evolved from the shackles used – literally – to keep wives in their place.

Once it is on, superstition decrees that the wedding ring should stay firmly in place. Losing a wedding ring is said to symbolize, at best, the loss of a husband's affections. If it is irretrievably mislaid the ring must be replaced, but fortune can only be restored, it is said, if the new one is chosen and paid for by the nearest male members of the wife's family, not by her husband.

Wedding rings for husbands are a relatively new fashion, supplanting the signet ring, traditionally bearing the family crest, worn on the little finger. From ancient times, signet rings were used for signing or sealing documents. The ancient Egyptians wore rings mounted with scarabs (gems cut in the shape of beetles and engraved with symbols on their flat sides) to ward off evil.


A warning that you cannot get something for nothing and that sacrifices, though they may mean effort, can have tangible rewards. The French name betrays the best-known origin of the dish.

On ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser les oeufs is the original French for this expression. The omelette, however, was probably known well before the French coined the word in the 16th century, and has long been enjoyed as a sweet as well as a savory dish. Experts on Middle Eastern food think that it may originally have come from Persia as a more solid dish called an eggah – more like a Spanish tortilla, which typically contains potatoes.

On the making of the perfect French omelette, cooks are agreed that the eggs should be very fresh, that they should be cooked in butter, that it is best to keep a special pan for omelette preparation, and that once cooked the omelette should be served immediately. Purists disapprove of the addition of milk advised by the American 19th-century cook Fannie Merritt Farmer. Her "Plain Omelet," known in England as a soufflé omelette, was made by separating the eggs, beating the whites and folding them into the yolks before cooking to give a puffed-up result. The dish was finished in the oven to allow the top to cook through.

Omelette Arnold Bennett, made with smoked haddock, is named for the English novelist and theater critic who habitually dined at the Savoy Hotel Grill in London in the 1920s.


It all depends where you live. Black cats are considered lucky in Britain, when you meet them and also when they enter the house uninvited, but in the USA and mainland Europe they are ill omens. There, it is white felines that are the lucky ones.

The Egyptians revered all cats, whatever their color, for their ability to keep valuable granaries free of rodents. When a cat died it was taken to Bubastis, home of the cat goddess Basht or Pasht, who was also the deity of pleasure and protector against contagious disease, and was believed to have nine lives. Presumably from the sounds of their voices, pet cats were affectionately known as "Mau."

In Europe, cats became the subjects of religious persecution when, in the Middle Ages, they became associated with a form of devil worship in which


* That a cat may look at a king is an expression of equality. A catnap is a short doze.

* A cat's eye is a reflective stud on the road that shines like the feline eye when illuminated by headlights.

* Models tread the narrow catwalk as nimbly as felines.

* The cat's whiskers are the tops – and biologically supremely sensitive.

* A cats' chorus is a cacophony of sound, like a group of cats mewing and yowling at night.

Satan took the form of a black cat. On the plus side, black cats were believed, in Britain, to have considerable powers of healing. Just the touch of a single hair from a black cat's tail would, it was said, cure a sty, while smearing the blood of a black cat on the rash was recommended to clear up an attack of shingles.


The kiss is not just a powerful symbol of reconciliation, probably used in the earliest societies, but also an affectionate greeting and an act of intimacy that is an essential part of being human.

It can be no accident that the kiss is such a potent form of touch. Our lips have evolved, with our hands, as the parts of the body most sensitive to physical contact. And because we smell as we kiss, it is also an act of recognition. As the Bible records, the blind Isaac, as an old man, kissed in blessing the person he thought was his son Esau. But Isaac was mistaken. Instead of Esau he kissed Jacob dressed in his brother's clothes – garments that retained Esau's personal odor.

The kiss of reconciliation may go back even further in our evolution, for, After a quarrel, chimpanzees will kiss and embrace to make the peace. Moreover, some anthropologists, including Desmond Morris, author of Manwatching (1977), believe that the French kiss evolved from mothers weaning their children by feeding them mouth-to-mouth with pre-chewed morsels, in an exchange similar to that commonly used by birds and other creatures.

In a whole range of cultures, including Inuit, Maori and Polynesian, nose rubbing or nose kissing is the equivalent of the Western kiss. Describing such behavior among the Malays in the 1830s, Charles Darwin observed, "This lasted rather longer than a cordial shake of the hand with us, and as we vary the force of the grasp of the hand in shaking, so do they in pressing," and that "during the process they uttered comfortable little grunts." The very act of physical contact, as in a kiss but also in a hug, is said by psychologists to have a calming effect on the brain.

Glandular fever, or infectious mononucleosis, a viral disease most common among those between 15 and 17 years old, is known colloquially as the kissing disease from its most likely method of transmission.


And, say the experts, even more than this, when they analyze both the overall impression of a person's writing style and elements such as the size and shape of the letters and the way in which they are joined and embellished.

Beware, says the American specialist Dr Baruch M. Lazewnik, of a graceful, flowing writing style. Its beautiful appearance can mask a manipulative personality. Equally, he warns against characterizing backward or left-sloping writing as betraying a weak character. Rather, he maintains, it may indicate a tendency to pull back from emotional attachments. A marked slant to the right, however, is agreed by many graphologists to indicate an extrovert.

Other keys to character in handwriting are angles – the connecting strokes used most often by analytical thinkers – and the loops and flourishes favored by more artistic personalities. The way in which letters are joined – or not – is a guide to the way a person uses logic and connects thoughts and ideas. A tense person may write with great pressure, giving the pen strokes little variation in light and shade.

It was not just the quality of handwriting that was stressed in the 1933 News Chronicle guide to letter writing for housewives. It also maintained that: "You can read character in the trouble that has been taken to form a pleasant phrase, kindness in some happy little thought, and pride and self-respect in clear, legible writing and the way the epistle is set out."


Apart from the obvious risk of having something fall on you, the association between ladders and misfortune also goes back to the old practice of hanging criminals – particularly at Tyburn in London – by making them climb a ladder to the gallows.

Some people also believe that a ladder placed against a wall is unlucky because it forms a triangle with the wall and the ground – a sign for the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) – and so is sacred.

Accidents with ladders are commonplace. In Britain about 50 people a year are killed by them and over 30,000 need hospital treatment. A household guide published in the 1930s advised that when raising or lowering a long ladder the "amateur should, in all cases of doubt, attach a strong rope to the top of the ladder so it can be controlled."

In the days before cheap, disposable tights, and especially in wartime, a ladder in an expensive pair of nylon stockings was a disaster. Women soon discovered that a dab of clear nail polish would stop a small ladder and prevent it from running any farther.


* If you walk under a ladder you should spit over your left shoulder to avoid misfortune.

* Walking under a ladder will prevent you from getting married that year.

* If you have no choice but to walk under a ladder, wish first, and your wish will come true.

* Cross your fingers to negate bad luck if you have to walk under a ladder. Or cross your fingers and keep them crossed until you see a dog.


It is testament to salt's great value that its spilling should herald ill luck. But, fortunately for the clumsy, it has been a long-held belief that throwing salt over your shoulder can act as an effective antidote.

Ancient suspicions surrounding spilled salt agree that it can bring on all kinds of disaster – from a fallen roof to a fatal wound. Its association with misfortune is thought by some to originate from the depiction by Leonardo da Vinci, in "The Last Supper," of the traitor Judas turning over the salt cellar.

The original salt cellar was a large bowl or "saler" placed in the center of the table. In the 16th and 17th centuries the bowl was replaced by large "steeple" cellars made of silver, crystal or some other valuable material and often decorated with gold or even precious stones.


Excerpted from "A Word to the Wise"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Ruth Binney.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction........................................................................................ 6
Living Together................................................................................... 8
Better Housekeeping........................................................................ 32
The Gardener’s Friend...................................................................... 60
Kitchen Tips..................................................................................... 94
Health and Beauty.......................................................................... 126
Nanny Knows Best.......................................................................... 154
Signs of Nature............................................................................... 180
Index............................................................................................... 216

Customer Reviews