Know your English: Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

“Hey, happy birthday! Did you get nice presents from your friends?”

“Got quite a few gifts, actually. But I wouldn’t call any of them nice. Some of them…”

“You know what they say, never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“Gift horse? What are you talking about? Nobody gifted me a horse.”

“When you tell someone ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’, you’re telling him not to complain about the gift he’s received.”

“In other words, I should be grateful someone has given me one. Instead of finding fault with the gift, I should simply accept it.”

“That’s right! You should appreciate the gesture. You should not find fault with someone who has tried to do something nice. Never look a gift horse in the mouth is what I told my nephews when they complained about the gifts they’d received from their grandparents.”

“So, the ‘gift horse’ in the expression is the present or the gift that you’ve been given.”

“Yes, that’s right! It’s also possible to say, ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’. Neethu said that she didn’t like the colour of the saree her neighbour had presented her. ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ is what I told her.”

“My grandmother smilingly accepts everything that is given to her. Never complains. Don’t ever look a gift horse in the mouth is her constant mantra.”

“That’s a good example. So, what were some of the gifts you got? Anything….”

“Tell me, why shouldn’t I look into the mouth of a horse? I mean what…”

“One way of finding out something about a horse is to look at its teeth. The teeth tell you whether the horse is young or old, and whether it’s in good physical condition or not.”

“I see. In other words, when I’m given a horse as a gift, I shouldn’t immediately open its mouth and see what condition the animal is in. I should happily accept the gift.”

“That’s right! You shouldn’t evaluate the gift.” “So, what should I do with people who have given me terrible gifts? Should I just look over them? Ignore them for a few days?”

“Look over? You mean ‘look through’, don’t you?”

“Look through? But doesn’t ‘look through’ mean to go through or read something quickly? For example, I can ask you to look through my assignment.”

“Yes, that’s one of the meanings of the expression. When you look through something, you don’t necessarily have to go through each page. One can look through an old family album. It means to go through the album quickly.”

“Ok. So, when you ‘look through people’, does it mean you take a quick look at them?”

“No, it means you ignore them completely. In other words, you pretend you don’t see them – you act as if they don’t exist.”

“I see. How about this example? For some strange reason, Sujatha and Ramesh looked right through me at the party.”

“Sounds good. The new Registrar has the habit of looking through people.”

“I’m not planning to look through my friends. After all, they did remember my birthday. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth is the lesson I’ve learnt today.”

“It’s a lot like nuts and bolts – if the rider’s nuts, the horse bolts.” -Nicholas Evans

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 11:54:07 AM |

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