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Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth.

What is a gift-horse? Why shouldn't you look in its mouth?
What does this idiom actually mean and how is it used?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 23 down vote accepted

A gift horse is a horse that was a gift, quite simply. When given a horse, it would be bad manners to inspect the horse's mouth to see if it has bad teeth. This can be applied as an analogy to any gift: Don't inspect it to make sure it matches some standard you have, just be grateful!

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Answers all my questions concisely –  Thursagen May 9 '11 at 23:49
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In Greece when we give a gift and he's looking at it here and there we have the phrase: "Someone’s give him a donkey and he look at in the mouth." It is exactly the same thing and have the same meaning –  Lefteris Gkinis May 10 '11 at 10:07
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It's not to see if the horse has_bad_ teeth, it's about estimating the age of the horse, by examining the number of teeth and the wear, as well as the level of gum recession (where the expression "Long in the tooth" comes from). –  Sam May 10 '11 at 12:34
    
Yes exactly...... –  Lefteris Gkinis May 10 '11 at 14:42
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In Spain we have almost exactly the same expression (a caballo regalado no le mires el diente), and the explanation for it is the same that has been given above. –  user60323 Dec 22 '13 at 15:02

A horses teeth are regarded as a good guide to its age. When you buy a horse you check its teeth to see if they match the age of the horse according to the seller.

If someone gives you a horse as a gift, it is considered ungrateful to check its teeth. You are pointedly drawing attention to your doubts about the quality of the gift.

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it means:

Don't be ungrateful when you receive a gift.

here's the origin:

As with most proverbs the origin is ancient and unknown. We have some clues with this one however. The phrase was originally "don't look a given horse in the mouth" and first appears in print in 1546 in John Heywood's A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, where he gives it as:

"No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth."

Heywood is an interesting character in the development of English. He was employed at the courts of Henry VIII and Mary I as a singer, musician, and playwright. His Proverbs is a comprehensive collection of those known at the time and includes many that are still with us:

- Many hands make light work.
- Rome wasn't built in a day.
- A good beginning makes a good ending.

and so on. These were expressed in the literary language of the day, as in "would yee both eat your cake, and have your cake?", but the modern versions are their obvious descendents [sic].

here's an alternative explanation, from the question Does the phrase looking a gift horse in the mouth originate from the legend of the Trojan Horse?

No - you can estimate a horse's age by looking at its teeth. Looking a "gift horse in the mouth" would be like judging the gift's value or appearing ungrateful. The general idea is: it may not be ideal (like an old horse) but it was free & you can still make good use of it & be grateful for having one at all.

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Commentary to Saint Paul's Letter to the Ephesians by Saint Jerome (347- 420): "...aut si tantum Latinus es, noli de gratuito munere judicare, et, ut vulgare proverbium est, noli equi dentes inspicere donati". –  Albertus Dec 22 '13 at 20:19

It is rude to be critical of a gift. Traditionally, one checks the health of a horse by examining its mouth. (Serial numbers are often tattooed on the inner lip of a horse, for tracking reasons, too.) Therefore, looking a gift horse in the mouth means you are critiquing the quality of the horse given to you.

A modern example: receiving an iPod as a gift, and then complaining that it doesn't have the memory capacity you wanted, or that you wanted a Zune, instead.

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I'm 82 years old,and the phrase is much older than I am .It is generally a procedure to determine a horse's age .Be grateful you were given the horse "or any materialistic item)and show appreciation ,regardless of it's condition ,or value .

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Don. I’m pleased to find the answer to this question from a “Senpai (respected senior in Japanese).” I’m 81 year-old. I’ve been thinking I’m the eldest user of EL&U site, though I don’t want to be checked on my teeth. I like your answer. –  Yoichi Oishi Jun 4 at 1:32

It's not about bad teeth, looking a horse in the mouth is a way (that experienced equestrians) use to determine the age... not the dental health, of the horse.

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Bottom line is to be grateful for the gift without judging or devaluing the gift with ones own opinion.... same goes for the horse, you didn't have a horse to begin with so giving one unto you appreciate it and nevermind the flaw of age

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