Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Episode 136: Never Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 136: Never Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Record Date: December 12, 2021

Air Date: December 15, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week is ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’, alternatively ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’.


Let’s look at the Oxford English Dictionary, which says looking a gift horse in the mouth means to…


criticize and find fault with a gift

End Quote

The OED notes this phrase was “given horse” instead of “gift horse” in the earliest uses. This is an old one, with it being included in a dictionary of english proverbs as far back as 1546. 

I’ll quote from a copy provided through the Text Creation Partnership of John Heywood’s A dialogue containing the number in effect of all the proverbs in the english tongue compact in a matter concerning two manner of marriages, made and set forth by John Heywood;submit=Go;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=geuen+hors 

In the original spelling: A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue compacte in a matter concernyng two maner of mariages, made and set foorth by Iohn̄ Heywood.


Where gyfts be gyuen freely, est west north or south,

No man ought to loke a geuen hors in the mouth.

End Quote

If Heywood included it in his work as an existing English proverb, then where did he get it from?

For this I turn to Gary Martin of the website, who says:


It is probable that Heywood obtained the phrase from a Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400, which contains the text 'Noli equi dentes inspicere donati' (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse). Where St Jerome got it from we aren't ever likely to know.

End Quote 

I know, I know, my Latin is flawless. You can be envious if you wish. But remember, my utter lack of any innate talent with speaking other languages is a gift, and we ought not look it in the mouth. 

Another note of early Latin origins comes from The Complete Collection of English Proverbs by John Ray, 1768. On page 113 after the entry “Look not a gift horse in the mouth”, he notes


It seems this was a Latin Proverb in Hierom’s time, Erasmus quotes it out of his preface to his commentaries on the epistle to the Ephesians.

End Quote

Which gives us a pretty good feeling the phrase has been in use for longer than we can possibly track down. But why though?

From regarding an exhibit Horses and Human History which opened in 2012…


Horses were first domesticated in around 3500 BC, probably on the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan, and introduced to the ancient Near East in about 2300 BC. Before this time, people used donkeys as draught animals and beasts of burden. The adoption of the horse was one of the single most important discoveries for early human societies. Horses and other animals were used to pull wheeled vehicles, chariots, carts and wagons and horses were increasingly used for riding in the Near East from at least c. 2000 BC onwards.

End Quote

So humans and horses have been together for a long time. And the buying, selling, or trading of horses has long been part of humanity’s history. It would be important to know what you are getting with a horse. 

One common origin reason for the proverb is that you can tell how old a horse is by its teeth. And in that inspection, you are making sure the horse is of the age you are expecting. But if the horse is a gift, it might be considered rude to inspect it to assess the value as the implication could be you wished for a higher value gift. 

Of course, I wanted to see if this part was even true before assuming it to be a valid origin reason. And for that, I turn to the University of Missouri Extension Office out of Missouri, USA, in an article written by Wayne Loch and Melvin Bradley of the Department of Animal Sciences. 


The art of determining the age of horses by inspection of the teeth is an old one. It can be developed to a considerable degree of accuracy in determining the age of young horses. The probability of error increases as age advances and becomes a guess after the horse reaches 10 to 14 years of age. Stabled animals tend to appear younger than they are, whereas those grazing sandy areas, such as range horses, appear relatively old because of wear on the teeth.

Horses, like people, vary considerably in vigor and longevity. In general, they have passed their physical peak when they reach 9 to 10 years of age. At this age, the chance of an unsoundness being present has increased.

End Quote

Yes… you can tell the age of a horse by looking into its mouth. And that makes it a reasonable origin reason to go along with the knowledge that the phrase has been used since at least the late 300s CE. 

But even if we have a decent handle on the origins and reasoning behind a phrase, it is still important to see how the phrase has been used over the years.

I’ll note that I found only 1 example of “given horse” used in the newspapers of the United States, and that was in 1889 in a syndicated piece that ran in several papers including the Ottawa Free Trader, the Wichita Eagle, and the St. Louis Republic. But in this article, they were simply quoting from John Heywood’s work, so it isn’t an original usage and I won’t include them here. 

But there are several examples of ‘given horse’ mixed in with ‘gift horse’ in the British Newspaper Archives. So I’ll present some examples in chronological order regardless of the word used or Country of origin. 

1797 In the Critical Review; or, Annals of Literature; extended and improved by a society of gentlemen. A new arrangement. Volume the twenty-first - Edited by Tobias Smollet

Out of Yorkshire, England

This one from the Dundee Evening Telegraph out of Angus, Scotland is one of the last - in terms of dates - I saw of examples using “given horse”. 

I’ve met a few people like Nellie Hussey. But I have my own saying, something I’ve learned over years of trying to tone down my own abrasive honesty: Candor is like dessert. A little is great, but too much will put folks in a sour mood. 

Next up we’ll take a look at how not looking a gift horse in the mouth is used today, but first we want to thank those who make this show possible, including Emily, our newest Patron! 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons.

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Modern Uses

1966 TV Show Episode

When I was a kid I used to love watching reruns of The Monkees, a TV show about a british boy band. It was goofy and musical so, of course, I loved it. 

There was an episode called “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth” which originally aired October 31, 1966. Here’s the synopsis of that episode from 

There are no pets allowed in the Monkees' apartment. This leads to comic complications when Davy watches a horse for a kid. The Monkees get a taste of farm living when they try to return the horse. 

I watched the opening scene again when writing this episode. I haven’t watched TV since the late 90s and I don’t care for sitcoms, but I could rewatch an episode of The Monkees or M*A*S*H any day of the week.

2006 Song

Emmure has a song called Looking a Gifthorse in the Mouth off the 2006 album The Complete Guide to Needlework

The lyrics are simple; all about a love lost due to the singers own actions. 


She called me captain. I dragged her into the deepest seas

What am I supposed to do now with these pictures and these memories

Now that I've thrown you away

This is the last song I wrote for you

Where is my closure?

You can feel me clinging to my sheets

Waiting for this new perspective, that these hands are better off empty

Now that I've thrown you away, I'm still waiting

And we've parted ways; and I hope that you're happy

'Cause you are the memory that just won't seem to fade

End Quote 


This is a deathcore song, which isn’t my style. But I feel the singers intent through the lyrics… if not the musical tone.

2009 Book

We also found the 2006 book Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth!: (And Other Weird Sayings) by Cynthia Klingel with illustrations by Mernie Gallagher-Cole. The quick description on Goodreads says:


Thanks to whimsical illustrations and everyday examples, kids can finally discover the true meanings behind such weird idioms as 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth!'

End Quote 

One more before we move to Twitter…


I’ll direct you to Saatchi Art where artist Angela Gabriel has a painting “Life is a gift horse” available. It’s an acrylic on canvas, about 35 by 35. It shows a point-of-view scene where you can see the head of a horse as you travel on towards a mountain range in the distance.

The artist says


Life is - a given horse I understood when I got on a mountain horse. In the magical mountain Rila. In my Country. 

End quote

Link in the show notes or on Patreon. 

Okay, to the Twitter!

Here is one about American Football, a game that I will note is not played with a ball but rather something resembling an elongated egg. And only one person is allowed to use their feet and that person is only on the field for special situations. Anyway…

Wrap up...

I do want to address the reality that this phrase, on occasion, can be employed in a negative way. It can be used to attempt to make a person feel bad when a gift is not authentically given. Many of us have known someone who uses money or gifts to maintain a toxic relationship. And in those cases it’s perfectly fine to look a gift horse right in the mouth. 

But usually, this phrase is meant to show gratitude when someone is gifting you something. It may be a physical item such as a present, or it may be a verbal gift like a compliment. And genuine, authentic gifts should be received with grace. If you aren’t sure how to react, and the gift isn’t inappropriate, a simple thank you will usually do the trick. And this has been adulting tips with Dan. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users. 

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