"Look a (gift) horse in the mouth"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sun Mar 10 20:06:56 UTC 2013

A version of the proverb appears in John Stanbridge's "Vulgaria," written
c.1508, in the edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1519. (Available on
EEBO, Huntington Library, STC / 1611:04  image 17 of 20; I don't know if it
appears in earlier editions.):

"A gyven hors may not loked in the tethe."

The following also appears in "Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions
gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus," 1539, by Richard Tavener:

"A gyven horse (we saye) maye not be loked in the mouth."

I don't know if Erasmus said anything close to this. The 1539 book doesn't
give Erasmus's original, just the translation.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Joel S. Berson
Sent: Sunday, March 10, 2013 3:31 PM
Subject: Re: "Look a (gift) horse in the mouth"

Really?  Doesn't one also look a gift horse in the mouth to determine what
it's worth -- its age, health?  See "gift-horse" under "horse" in
the OED.  "21.   gift horse n. (earlier given
horse) a horse bestowed as a gift. to look a gift
(†given) horse in the mouth , to criticize and find fault with a gift."

Where, however, I find a form of the expression back to 1546 -- I missed it
earlier because it's a "geuen horse".  ("Gift horse" remains with Samuel B.,
at 1663.)

Re Larry's comment about Troy, I was thinking only of renderings in English.
Unless he can find a translation of Homer that dates before 1663.


At 3/10/2013 02:46 PM, Victor Steinbok wrote:
>These seem to be horses of a different color. The whole point of
>looking a horse in the mouth is precisely to determine its age/health.
>You don't look a gift horse in the mouth (also exists in other
>languages, although sometimes--e.g., in Russian--with "teeth" for
>"mouth") because it's impolite. So the first expression should
>certainly predate the second logically, although, of course, they may well
have coexisted from the start.
>     VS-)
>On 3/10/2013 1:58 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>>Can someone easily tell me the date of "look a (gift) horse in the mouth"?
>>The OED has it earliest in 1663, under "gift-horse", as
>>1663   S. Butler Hudibras: First Pt. i. i. 37   He ne'er consider'd
>>it, as loath To look a gift-horse in the mouth.
>>I have "look a horse  in the mouth" (that is, without "gift") in a
>>quack's harangue attributed to the Earl of Rochester, which would make
>>his use before 1680.  (I don't know whether a publication date can be
>>The quotation is not exactly PC:  "here in England, look a horse in
>>the Mouth, and a Woman in the Face, you presently know both their Ages
>>to a Year."
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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