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Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Origin and Meaning

Don’t be ungrateful, refuse or complain about something you’ve been offered or given as a gift and don’t give the impression that you wish for more by assessing how good it is.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouthThis idiom dates back to the 4th Century AD when the minister St. Jerome noted in The Letter to the Ephesians, ‘Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse). It wasn’t until 1546, however, that it appeared in print in English in a book entitled ‘A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue’ by John Heywood. In Heywood’s text it reads as ‘”No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.” – slightly closer to today’s version.

But why a horse? And what’s special about its mouth?

Well, apparently as horses get older they grow more and more teeth; this is what causes them to have the classic protruding front teeth – other new teeth have simply forced them forward. So, just by looking in a horse’s mouth you can determine their age and health; the more teeth they have, the older they are! It’s a specialist task but it is possible. Therefore, way back when horses, not iPads, were given as gifts it was seen as very rude to ‘look in their mouth’ because it suggested that you were suspicious about its quality or that you wanted to assess its value and hence would seem ungrateful.

Paul: If I were you, I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Just be grateful that he was kind enough to give you his old car when you needed one.
Catherine: Yeah, you’re right. I just really wanted a new one!

Laura: I don’t like this dress very much but it was from my grandma and you know what they say, ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Chris: My boss has just offered to pay for me to go on a trip to New York. I have to do one day of work but the rest of the week is free. The only problem is he won’t let me fly First Class!
Tom: Oh come on!! I know it’s not the quality you’re used to but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!!
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