I don’t know about you, but every time I’m in a place where I can’t look up an answer, I’m hit with a million things I’d like to look up. Finally, I lucked out and thought of question while in a position to seek an answer.
Why Can’t I Look At Its Mouth?
Since I was a small child, every time I’ve heard the saying don’t (or never) look a gift horse in the mouth, all I could picture is a massive, powerful horse holding a gift in its terrifying teeth. I keep my eyes averted and cautiously approach, slowly inching my way toward to the horse to retrieve my gift – careful to never look directly at the horse’s mouth.
Fast forward to age 36: the phrase came up in the presence of my 9 year old, who asked “why not?”
My first instinct: “because it’s a terrifying horse.”
Of course, deep down inside I knew that what I was imagining couldn’t be reality. I looked up the answer to a 30+ year question I’ve been carrying like a millstone around my neck, and here’s what I discovered.
St. Jerome, Gift Horse Expert
Apparently, way back in A.D. 400, St. Jerome wrote the phrase Noli equi dentes inspicere donati in his Preface to the Commentaries of the Letter to the Ephesians. Google translates that phrase as Don’t look at the teeth of a gifted horse.
Suddenly, the whole thing made a lot more sense (assuming, of course, that “gifted” in this context means “given as a gift” – not an extraordinarily talented horse).
The horse IS the gift!
This wasn’t a warning not to offend the horse, it was a warning not to offend the person gifting you a free horse – just accept the gift and move along.
It reminds me of a time a homeless man told me he was starving. We were across the street from a McDonalds, so I told him I would buy him any 2 items off the dollar menu. He immediately cursed me out, said there was nothing good on the dollar menu, and refused my offer. He looked the gift horse in the mouth.
The Moral Of The Story
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Do look weird old sayings in the mouth.