Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

I was listening to the radio the other day and one of the very young DJ’s was having real issues understanding the meaning of the saying: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Of course, the first impulse thought was “Are you kidding me? Everybody knows what this means!” Extremely confident I went upstairs, to my 19 year old son and said with a sarcastic smirk:”you know what “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth means, right?” I was half way out the door, as I expected a quick “sure mom, what the hell?” when I froze hearing his answer: “I have never heard anything more ridiculous in my life! Why would anybody check a horse’s mouth?”

Let me explain: I have high expectations from my son. He loves history and politics, and his favourite channels have been Discovery and History ever since he was a kid. So yes, I do expect him to know the answer to such a simple question. First I blamed the school: “What are they teaching you there?” Why do I pay a ton of money to these universities if our kids don’t know the simplest things! Then, I blamed myself and his grandparents for not teaching him the real values in life. But then I stopped and gave it a second thought.

The explanation that was offered on air, was a paraphrase of the saying, that sounded something like this: Don’t check a BMW that is given to you as a gift. At first I was appalled. Since when we measure happiness and gratitude by referencing a BMW? What happened to the simple things in life? But then, again, I stopped and thought a bit more.

My thoughts went back to Shakespeare and his “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet” and I became more understanding. No matter how you put it, and no matter how you translate it in your mind, to make sense, the only thing that everybody should be remembered of is the meaning of this saying:  Don’t be ungrateful when you receive a gift.  A gift is a token of somebody’s appreciation for you, or somebody’s love for you. Both are not to be taken lightly but treasured and appreciated.

If I were to translate it in terms closer to these times: if you indeed get a BMW for your birthday, say thank you and be grateful! Don’t complain that you wanted a pink one, and this one is a dull black colour, or it is a 3 series when your friend has an X6.  A horse or a BMW (sic), no matter what your gift is, receive it with gratitude and before quickly assessing its value and trying to figure out how much you could get on it if resold or thinking about Your wants, be humbled by the thought that somebody loves you, is thinking about you and appreciates you.

The origin of this saying is unknown and ancient, ever since humans have tamed horses. Its ad literam meaning refers to the age of a horse that can be “read” by looking at its teeth. Unlike the humans, the horses teeth keep growing throughout their lives.

It is said that the saying was found first in a latin text, around 400 AD: “Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse). Later on, in 1546  John Heywood, an English writer and collector of proverbs prints it in one of his works for the first time.



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