Monday, January 23, 2017

"Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever?"

I was sick all weekend and wanted to find out if this adage is true and where it came from. Settle in, because the history of this one is pretty interesting:

(SHORT VERSION FOR LAMERS WHO LACK CURIOSITY: This saying is bad advice. Ignore it.) 

It turns out that this little gem of "wisdom" is actually a dangerous mistranslation of an even more dangerous myth. The earliest permutation of this phrase we can find comes from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (~1398 A.D.), which makes this one of the oldest wive's tales still kicking around as common knowledge. It has survived OVER 600 YEARS!

So there must be some truth to it, right?

Well, the phrase as originally written in Ye Olde English was "Fede a cold, starb a feber." (Those aren't typos; the English simply hadn't invented the letter V yet.) Now, it's important to note that "starb" is a verb in Olde English that means "to die." So the translation should be "Feed a cold, die of fever."

In other words: "If you eat when you have a cold, then you will die of fever."

Okay. So that's a little more sinister than the phrase as we know it. What's going on? Well, back in the 14th century, before the scientific method was codified, it was common belief that digesting food raised the body temperature.* So the thought followed that eating when you're feverish would only lead to making the fever hotter.

So people wouldn't eat when they had a cold.

Unfortunately, this led to so many people dying from lack of food when they suffered from a cold, that that earlier weird verb, "starb," took on a new meaning; it no longer meant "to die" but instead specifically "to die from hunger."

And that verb eventually mutated into the modern word "starve" as we know it.

The phrase would eventually be reborn as the one we are familiar with today, "Feed a cold, starve a fever," because of a poor understanding of Old English.

So the original phrase was based on the flimsiest principles of what was considered "science" by 14th century standards, and the modern version is a mistranslation with ZERO basis in science.

For the record, when you have a cold or fever you should eat as usual when hungry. What is important is that you drink as much water as you can. And then some. Keep drinking water.

*N.B. They weren't totally incorrect about digestion raising body temperature, but it is a very slight increase.