If someone says “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” it means that when you receive a gift, do not be ungrateful.
Example: Kyle was gifted a fancy watch by his brother. However, instead of being appreciative, he started examining it. He checked to see if the brand and color were to his liking. Later, Kyle said to his friend, “I don’t think I want to wear this watch; it looks cheap. Should I give it back?” So his friend advised, “As the saying goes, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
(In other words, he should appreciate the gift he was given.)
Synonyms / Related Phrases:
The Origin Of – Don’t Look a Gift Horse In The Mouth
What is the origin of this common saying? Unfortunately, it is not clear how the proverb “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” originated, but we can speculate. If we look at the phrase, it sounds like it came from a time or place where receiving a horse as a gift was a regular occurrence. After receiving such a gift, people would literally look into the horse’s mouth. This was considered rude, but why?
The reason people would look a gift horse in the mouth is to determine its age. Yes, a horse’s age can be deduced by inspecting its teeth. The longer the teeth, the older the horse. Thus, looking a gift horse in the mouth would be considered rude because the person is essentially examining the horse to check how old it is. If the horse was too old, maybe they wouldn’t even want it. But the horse was a gift, so should they really be so picky?
While we can mostly just speculate about the origin of this phrase, it’s possible that the ungrateful behavior people displayed after receiving a gift horse was common enough that this proverb developed from it.
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Anyways, this proverb goes back to at least the 16th century. For example, John Heywood used it in a book of his called A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue, 1546:
“Where gifts be given freely—east, west, north or south—No man ought to look a given horse in the mouth.”
- My grandma bought me a bunch of dark colored shirts as a gift. I prefer lighter colors, but I did not want to look a gift horse in the mouth so I thanked her.