Why not look a gift horse in the mouth?

Q: As part owner of a racehorse, I’ve often wondered about the expression “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Have you ever written or seen anything written about its origin?

A: There’s a brief explanation buried in a blog entry we wrote five years ago about a related phrase (“straight from the horse’s mouth”).

As we noted in that posting, you can learn a lot about a horse’s age and general health by examining its teeth. So a wise trader looks in a horse’s mouth before buying it.

But when someone gives you a horse as a present, you don’t inspect it before you accept it. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” means “Don’t quibble about a gift.”

Here’s a little more information. Within its entry for the noun “gift,” the Oxford English Dictionary says “gift-horse” means “a horse given as a present.”

The OED includes this citation from Samuel Butler’s mock-heroic poem Hudibras (1663): “He ne’er consider’d it, as loath / To look a gift-horse in the mouth.”

But this sentiment didn’t begin with Butler.

The old saying appeared in another form—with “given horse” instead of “gift horse”—in John Heywood’s A Dialogue of the Effectual Prouerbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage (1546): “No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”

A 1906 edition of Heywood’s proverbs notes that an earlier, toothier version—“A gyven hors may not be loked in the tethe”—appeared around 1510 in the Vulgaria Stambrigi, a book of proverbs collected by John Stanbridge.

But even in Stanbridge’s time, the proverb may have been over a thousand years old. The Anglican bishop and philologist John Chenevix Trench, in his book Proverbs and Their Lessons (1852), says:

“I will not pretend to say how old it is; it is certainly older than St. Jerome, a Latin father of the fourth century; who, when some found fault with certain writings of his, replied with a tartness which he could occasionally exhibit, that they were voluntary on his part, free-will offerings, and with this quoted the proverb, that it did not behove to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

St. Jerome’s words were “Noli … ut vulgare proverbium est, equi dentes inspicere donati” (“Don’t … as the popular proverb goes, inspect the teeth of a gift horse”).

Many languages have proverbs expressing a similar sentiment.

A letter published in 1873 in the journal Notes and Queries said the old horse-and-teeth proverb found its way into French in the 13th century: “Cheval donné ne doit-on en dens regarder” (“Don’t look at the teeth of a given horse”).

The ancient Greeks said more or less the same thing, minus the horse and the dentistry: “Praise the gift that anyone bestows.” Of course the Trojans would have disagreed.

Check out our books about the English language