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: Pam was given a beautiful watch as a gift. However, instead of showing gratitude, she examined the watch for flaws. She also checked to see if the brand and color were to her liking. “This watch looks cheap, so I’m not sure if I’ll wear it,” Pam said. What rude behavior! Upon seeing Pam’s reaction to the gift, someone might tell her: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
In other words, instead of being so unthankful, she should show appreciation for the gift.
Origin Of – Don’t Look a Gift Horse In The Mouth
What is the origin of the saying “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”? Unfortunately, the origin of this proverb is unknown. However, it sounds like there was a time where, after receiving a horse as a gift, people would literally look into the horse’s mouth. This was considered a rude thing to do. But why? And while we’re at it, why would someone want to look into the mouth of a horse?
The reason is because a horse’s age can be determined by inspecting its teeth. Basically, the longer the teeth, the older the horse. Thus, looking a gift horse in the mouth could be considered rude because the person is essentially examining the horse to see if it measures up to their standards. The implication is that they are checking its teeth to see if the horse is too old.
Again, while we can mostly just speculate about its origin, it seems this ungrateful behavior was common enough that this proverb developed from it. This old saying now applies to anyone who acts ungrateful after receiving a gift.
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.”
- Bob’s friend bought him some dark colored shirts. However, Bob only likes to wear light colored ones. Even so, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, he accepted the gift and thanked his friend.
Note: The origin of many idioms is not known. What will be included in such cases is a theory as to how an idiom originated. Or if not that, a quote is typically included on the page that can give you an idea for the expression’s age. So, for example, if I quote a newspaper from 1745 because it used a certain expression, then you know it’s at least that old.