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'Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth'

In the village of Vosava, Belarus, men prepare a horse and a sleigh to celebrate the New Year on January 13 according to the Julian calendar, 2017.
In the village of Vosava, Belarus, men prepare a horse and a sleigh to celebrate the New Year on January 13 according to the Julian calendar, 2017.
'Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth'! What? Why?
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Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

On this show, we explore the origins and usage of common expressions in American English. Sometimes we tie the show to an event or special time of the year. This show could be tied to any time of the year that features a holiday.

Holidays are a wonderful time of the year! They are a time when people slow down and take a break from their daily lives.

While holidays are celebrated in different ways, many have something in common -- gift-giving!

And who doesn't like to get a present. Covered in pretty paper, maybe tied with a bow or ribbon, a wrapped gift is a surprise. It could be anything!

"Oh, you really shouldn't have!" is a common response when someone hands you a gift. We say this even when we are thinking to ourselves, “Yay! I got a present!”

Sometimes the gift is perfect.

"It's just what I have always wanted!" you might say.

Sometimes it's not.

We have all been there. You happily tear open a gift, wondering what is inside. But then you see it and you are ... disappointed. But you must not show it. And you absolutely must not criticize the gift and make comments about why you don't like it.

In other words, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

This idiom is really old.

Way back in 1546, a man named John Heywood supposedly used this phrase in some Middle English text. ("No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”)

However, some word experts say the idiom is much older than that. However old it is, people must have used it when gifting a horse was a common thing.

To understand this idiom, we must understand a bit about horse's teeth. They grow over time. So, checking the length of the teeth is a way of knowing the horse's age. Although I have never given or received a horse, I'm guessing a young horse makes a better gift than an old one.

However, checking the horse's mouth would be a sign of mistrust towards the gift giver. This would be bad manners. And it might make the giver feel embarrassed or even angry!

The polite thing to do is simply to say "thank you" and accept the gift horse graciously.

These days, horses are not common gifts. But we commonly use this idiom.

Today "don’t (or never) look a gift horse in the mouth" means don't find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor. Don’t be ungrateful when you receive a present, even if it’s not exactly what you wanted. If you complain about a gift someone has given you or a favor someone has done for you, you could be accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Besides gifts, you can use this idiom for other things, such as a favor.

Let's say you ask a friend to help cook a dish for a party you are throwing for a group of senior citizens in your neighborhood.

She comes to the dinner, smiling from ear to ear, and hands you the dish she has cooked. It is very burnt and it smells ... odd. But you don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. You thank her for her dish and the time she took to make it. Then you put it on the table ... in the back ... where people hopefully won’t see it.

So, next time you get a gift that is less than perfect, remember that it is not nice to look a gift horse in the mouth. After all, it’s the thought that counts. This means that it's the thought of gift-giving and not the gift itself that is important.

And don’t worry. If you get something as a gift that you really don't like, you can always pass it along to someone else who may actually like it.

In other words, you can always re-gift it!

And that's the end of this Word and Their Stories!

I'm Anna Matteo.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to men is the greatest gift of all.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to men is the greatest gift of all.

Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t like? Use the expressions you heard here to tell us about it in the Comments Section!

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. The song at the end is Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing "The Greatest Gift of All."


Words in This Story

bow n. a knot made with one or more loops ("Tie the ribbon in a bow.")

ribbon n. a flat or tubular narrow closely woven fabric (as of silk or rayon) used for trimmings or knitting : a narrow fabric used for tying packages

disappointed v. feeling sad, unhappy, or displeased because something was not as good as expected or because something you hoped for or expected did not happen

idiom n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

supposedly adv. claimed to be true or real

manners n. behavior while with other people

embarrassed v. to make (a person, group, government, etc.) look foolish in public

gracious adj. marked by kindness and courtesy : graciously adv.

ungrateful adj. not feeling or showing thanks for favors, gifts, etc.

favor n. a kind or helpful act that you do for someone