Don’t Look a Gift Horse In The Mouth

Meaning:

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 grateful, he started examining it for flaws. He also checked to see if the brand and color were to his liking. Later, Kyle said to his friend, “I’m not sure I want to wear this watch; it looks cheap. Maybe I should throw it away?” So his friend advised, “As the saying goes, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

(In other words, instead of being unthankful, he should appreciate the gift.)

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
None.
A gift horse eating hay.

The Origin Of – Don’t Look a Gift Horse In The Mouth

What is the origin of this saying? Unfortunately, the origin of the proverb “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is unclear. However, it might have come from 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 is that? And for that matter, why would someone 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 how old it is—it might so old that they don’t even want it. But the horse was a gift, so should they be so picky?

While we can mostly just speculate about its origin, it might be that this ungrateful behavior people displayed after receiving a gift horse was common enough that this proverb developed from it.

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.”


Example Sentences

  • I bought my friend some dark colored shirts. However, as I was handing him the clothes, I remembered that he has a preference for lighter colors. Even so, he accepted the gift and thanked me, as he didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

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