One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” was reserved for occasions when my brother or I would burst forth with words of ingratitude after receiving something for which we, in my grandmother’s mind, should have gotten down on our knees and given profuse thanks and praise. Typically followed by some expression of how enthusiastically my grandmother would have received it, had the shoe been on the other foot.
It usually went something like this.
Grandmother puts bowl of yucky, congealed, cold mashed potatoes on the table in front of eager young child. Child turns up nose and goes “Eeeewwwwww!”
“Why, you ungrateful little . . . you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, you know. When I was your age, we had this little thing called the Great Depression, and we were lucky to have anything to eat at all.”
“But Grandma, they’re cold . . . “
“Cold, schmold. Why, when I was a little girl, heat hadn’t even been invented yet. We ate our mashed potatoes cold, and we liked it.
Followed immediately by the inevitable sweeping indictment “I don’t know what’s wrong with you kids these days.”
Ah, the poignant memories of a misspent youth.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy tells us that the proverb “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” means “don’t question the value of a gift.”
While this might be true in a literal sense, it misses the mark. In fact, the phrase really means something more like “Don't be ungrateful when you receive a gift.”
As with most proverbs, the origins of this phrase have been lost to time. Some credit this ancient proverb to St. Jerome (419 AD), an early Christian church father who, in his study on Ephesians, wrote "Never inspect the teeth of a gift horse."
I don't know about you, but that's close enough for me.
We also know that the phrase first appeared in English in 1546, in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, or, more simply, Heywood’s Proverbs. A member of the courts of England's King Henry VIII and Queen Mary I, Heywood is cited as creator of many common phrases, including "Many hands make light work" and "Rome wasn't built in a day." The "gift horse" phrase was originally “don't look a given horse in the mouth,” or in 1500’s-speak:
“No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”
You see, as horses age their teeth grow out, projecting further forward from their gums each year. As a result, their age, as well as their general physical health, can be estimated by checking how far their teeth have moved from their gums. By the way, this is also where we get the phrase "long in the tooth," meaning old.
Looking a gift horse in the mouth means to examine the horse, or any gift, for its worth, often right in front of the giver. The idea being that, if the recipient did not pay for the horse, then why question its age or health? Why not just be grateful for what you were given?
Well, just because you didn't pay for something up front doesn't make it free. I mean, you can probably get a horse without paying for it, even today, but that doesn't make it free. Feed and stabling costs alone boggle the mind.
Not to mention the mental and emotional "cost" of accepting a gift from someone else. Oh, yes, I know all free donations qualify as "gifts," but some are freer than others. Some will cost you for years.
So maybe it is worth looking a gift horse in the mouth, from time to time. Or at least a quick glance, when nobody's looking.