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I had always thought that the phrase was "don't look...", but my friend insists that it is "don't punch..." and there are a non-zero number of web search results showing usage of the other phrase. But I can't figure out where it comes from, or what it means, or if it is different from my understanding of the phrase (as Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth).

Is this potentially a regional usage?

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    – tchrist
    Sep 2, 2021 at 19:09

3 Answers 3

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By far the earliest match for "punch a gift horse" in Google Books search results is from a 1972 issue of National Lampoon, a U.S. satirical magazine that grew out of The Harvard Lampoon, a satirical university student publication. Here is the snippet result that Google Books reports:

NEVER PUNCH A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH OR SHIPS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT OR GAGA BABRUUUU FREEZIP BLESH DEEDEEDEE GEMP ... SOMETHING LIKE THAT .

Unfortunately, the snippet window that Google Books provides for this excerpt doesn't show any text at all. Still, given even the very limited context in which the phrase appears, it seems clear that this instance is an intentionally garbled play on the much older "never [or do not] look a gift horse in the mouth," which Christine Ammer, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013), says reached English around the year 1500:

look a gift horse in the mouth Be critical of something received at no cost. For example, Dad's old car is full of dents, but we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. This term, generally expressed as a cautionary proverb (Don't look a gift horse in the mouth), has been traced to the writings of the 4th-century cleric St. Jerome, and has appeared in English since about 1500. It alludes to determining the age of a horse by looking at its teeth.

In the National Lampoon excerpt, the author leads with "never punch a gift horse in the mouth," garbling the proverb with a common descriptive phrase ("punch [someone] in the mouth"), then mashes together two unrelated idiomatic phrases ("ships passing in the night" and "things that go bump in the night") as "ships that go bump in the night," and then descends into complete incoherence ("gaga babruuuu," etc.). Ha ha.

The next-earliest instance I've been able to find is from an Elephind newspaper database search, which yields this instance from "Without Leonard, the Spotlight Shines Marvelously on Hagler," in the Columbia [Missouri] Missourian (February 8, 1983):

[Marvin] Hagler [at the time the undisputed middleweight boxing champion of the world] was as bleak as the Cape Cod weather last week. It's not as though he would punch a gift horse in the mouth. He just looks that way with his shaved head and goatee.

The Missourian is the student newspaper of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the most highly regarded Journalism programs in the United States.

The expression next reappears as an "honorable mention" entry in the results of "New York Magazine Competition Number 709" in New York Magazine (January 19, 1991), "in which you were asked for Near Misses. Titles, names, phrases, and the like":

Don't punch a gift horse in the mouth.

[submitted by] H. R. Schiffman, Highland Park, N.J.

It is possible that these two and all or most subsequent instances of "don't punch a gift horse in the mouth" ultimately derive from people exposed to the 1972 magazine occurrence. A considerable number of college- and high-school-age young people did read National Lampoon back in the day. More likely, though, the periodic recurrences of the expression during the last three decades of the twentieth century are instances of absurdist minds thinking alike.

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Your friend would have a hard time defending their position that "punch" is the official version. A Google ngram (meaning, searching books) yields nothing for "punch a gift horse". Web searches do indeed show results, but most of these appear to be consciously making a variation, for effect, on the standard "look."

Also, restricting a web search to 1970-2000 yields no results, and expanding to 2010 only a few.

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    There is no "official" version - English doesn't have a ruling body. But yes, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" is the normal version of the saying.
    – nnnnnn
    Aug 29, 2021 at 23:38
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There is a common saying in Spanish "A caballo regalado no se le mira el diente". This phrase is commonly used by people in smaller towns and farmers, not very commonly used by the younger but easily understood by everyone. The saying literally translated could be "A gifted horse is not to be inspected in the teeth". But a better translation would be also understood as "do not inspect the mouth of the horse you received as a gift". This can be understood as "pinching" the house's mouth because you need to pinch to inspect the teeth. The background for pinching or inspecting the horse's teeth and mouth is to be sure it's young and healthy (example). Inspecting the mouth is a common practice when buying a horse if you don't know/trust the seller and is sometimes the only hint a buyer had in older times.

Anyway, the real meaning of the phrase is "do not be picky of something you were given for free"

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    Incidentally, the proverb itself is utter nonsense. Horses are very expensive to take care of, and if a horse has likely health problems, the "gift" is likely not a gift but a liability being thrown off on you. It might as well be "don't look a giant wooden horse in the hollow interior". Aug 29, 2021 at 18:48
  • What is the relevance of Spanish? Are you suggesting the phrase is derived from that language?
    – David
    Aug 29, 2021 at 20:40
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    Is your suggestion that my friend's "punch" is actually a corruption of "pinch"?
    – MikeD
    Aug 30, 2021 at 0:52
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    @R This comes from days when a horse was a major capital asset. Even a horse with health problems had good resale value to a knackers yard. At the time it would have been like being gifted a Ferrari.
    – Graham
    Aug 30, 2021 at 9:16
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    @R I agree with Graham, it's not generally true in history that a horse is more likely to be a liability than an asset. The high value of horses explains why horse theft has been a thing, often with severe punishments, up to and including death. And why some kings measured their power by their number of horses. Horses are less of an asset today in industrialized areas, but that doesn't make the proverb nonsense.
    – LarsH
    Aug 30, 2021 at 14:19

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