Never look a gift horse in the mouth
I have never got close and personal with a horse but I am told that you can learn a lot by inspecting the mouth of a nag, particularly about its age and general health. Horse traders routinely look at the mouth of horses they are thinking of purchasing before going ahead with the transaction. Our phrase – the variant is don’t rather than never – is used to warn someone not to be too sniffy or critical about something that is given to them for free.
The phrase has a long pedigree, perhaps not surprising as the giving of gifts was an important part of Ancient Greek life. Recipients were advised to praise a gift that anyone bestowed on them. As early as the fourth century CE a proverb involving the inspection of teeth was doing the rounds. John Chevenix Trench commented on the phrase in his book, Proverbs and Their Lessons, published in 1852, with this gloss, “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 ….that they were voluntary on his part” adding “noli..ut vulgare proverbium est, equi dentes inspicere donate”.
The interesting points of St Jerome’s usage are that it was clearly an idiom used commonly, if only by the common sorts, at the time, that we have a clear connection with the inspection of the gnashers of a horse that has been given as a gift and that it is used as a form of admonition. Given its classical origin it is not surprising to see a variant of the phrase crop up in other languages. In the 13th century the French used a proverb, “cheval donne ne doit-on en dens regarder” which translates as don’t look at the teeth of a horse which has been given to you, an almost exact match with St Jerome’s proverb.
The first example of its usage in print in England may have been in a collection of proverbs compiled by John Stanbridge, Vulgaria Stambrigi, published in 1510. There we find “a given hors may not be loked in the tethe”, an almost exact translation. Just over thirty years later there had been one significant change to the formula – we weren’t just looking at teeth but the mouth of the horse. In John Heywood’s A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage, published in 1546 we find “no man ought to look a gueun hors in the mouth”. The transformation to the phrase we now know was completed a century later. Samuel Butler used it in a couplet in his poem Hudibras, published in 1663, “he ne’er considered it, as loath/ to look a gift-horse in the mouth”.
The other common phrase associated with the mouth of a horse, straight from a horse’s mouth, indicating something that has come direct from the source and, therefore, reliable, is much more modern, dating from the early 20th century and, probably, of American origin. The first reference in print seems to have been in the Syracuse Herald of May 1913, “I got a tip yesterday and if it wasn’t straight from the horse’s mouth it was jolly well the next thing to it”. This is where we came in – you can tell a lot about a horse from its mouth.
So now we know!