Friday’s Phrase – Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:           Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

When I was young, this saying always made me picture a horse laden with presents. You know, a horse whose job it was to deliver gifts, a ‘gift horse’. I did not understand looking into its mouth, other than maybe that was where he hid the best gifts.

Current accepted meaning:

  1. To look in a critical way at something that has been given or gifted.

 I noticed the jacket was not made of real leather, but I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

  1. To judge a gift by its value alone; unappreciative.

I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I was lucky to be getting a birthday present at all!”

Historical Recorded Use:

This is more a proverb than an idiom, and as with most wisdom the origin is ancient and unknown. We have some clues, however. The phrase first appears in print in English in 1546, as “don’t look a given horse in the mouth”, in John Heywood’s, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, where he gives it as: “No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”

We can’t attribute the phrase to Heywood himself, as he collected them from the literary works of the day and from common parlance. But, he can certainly be given the credit for introducing many proverbs to a wide and continuing audience, including one that Shakespeare later borrowed – “All’s well that ends well”.

It is probable that Heywood obtained the phrase from a Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400, which contains the text ‘Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse). Where St. Jerome derived it from, we aren’t ever likely to know.

Etymology:

Prior to the advent of modern equine veterinary science, inspecting the mouth of a horse was standard practice to determine age and general health of the animal. You see, as horses develop and age, they grow more teeth and their existing teeth change shape and are projected forward. Determining a horse’s age or health this way is a specialist task, but it can be done. This practice was common practice used to set the value of a horse.

Conclusion:

When we refer to either Heywood’s or St. Jerome’s use, the ‘given horse’ reference immediately dismisses my youthful naivety and fixes the horse as being the gift. Now, it is easier to see that ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth’ would resemble the receiver of the gift determining the gifts value, in order show any appreciation.

We are admonished by the phrase to appreciate all gifts regardless of their perceived or real value. It is a wisdom that transcends time and is as pertinent today as it was when St. Jerome wrote it more than 1600 years ago. Real truths never change in the face of time.

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

This is also where we get the phrase “long in the tooth”, as a reference to something or someone that is old or beyond their prime.

The foreman was lean, covered in coal dust, and long in the tooth. He had worked these mines for years.”

Comments
One Response to “Friday’s Phrase – Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”
  1. Long in the tooth …aha!

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