Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Example in use: “He was so thoughtful and gave me a box of chocolates for my birthday. I’m really not a big chocolate eater but not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I thanked him and appreciated the gesture.”

Meaning: Don’t be ungrateful when receiving a gift or don’t inspect the gift too carefully to establish the quality or value.

Possible German equivalent: Einem geschenkten Gaul schaut man nicht ins Maul.

Possible origin: It is thought that the earliest origin of this idiom is St. Jerome's

"Equi donati dentes non inspiciuntur."

in The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400.

In England in the mid 1500s, John Heywood was a collector of phrases and proverbs, and records the expression "No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth." Here, the word “geuen” means “given” – that is, a gift which is a horse.

The reason we would be looking into the mouth of a horse at all is that a specialist can determine the age and therefore value of the horse just by looking at the horse’s teeth. As they get older, the teeth move forward and change shape and even though you’d need to be a specialist to do so, it really is possible to see how old they are.

John Heywood was employed in the courts of both Henry VIII and Mary I and it is considered the case that many proverbs became common in England through his publications. Even Shakespeare was known to use them such as the expression, “All’s well that end’s well”.

mouth / maʊθ



Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.