Maybe I Can Donate Them to a Horse Farm…
There’s an old, old man who works for my husband. This bloke has to keep working at his age because his wife liked being pregnant and carried on having babies until well into her forties. As a result, Oom Chris still has some children to be put through school and university, along with a gaggle of grandchildren to support.
Oom Chris escapes from his reality on weekends by going to his little plot of land outside Johannesburg on weekends. There he drinks brandy and lemonade and works at “hobby-farming” vegetables.
My husband once made a passing comment about liking sweet potatoes. Oom Chris overheard him and the result is the gift of a bag of sweet potatoes every Monday morning.
Initially very grateful of this largesse, I’ve mashed them, fried them, grilled them, baked them, curried them … you name it. I’m now fresh out of ideas, indeed I yam …
Never look a gift horse in the mouth, they say.
This comes into the category of phrases called proverbs, that is, ‘short and expressive sayings, in common use, which are recognized as conveying some accepted truth or useful advice’. The phrase is often expressed as ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’.
As horses age their teeth begin to project further forward each year and so their age can be estimated by checking how prominent the teeth are. This incidentally is also the source of another teeth/age related phrase – long in the tooth.
The advice given in the ‘don’t look…’ proverb is: when given a present, be grateful for your good fortune and don’t look for more by examining it to assess its value.
As with most proverbs the origin is ancient and unknown. We have some clues with this one however. The phrase was originally “don’t look a given horse in the mouth” and first appears in print in 1546 in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, where he gives it as:
“No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”
Heywood is an interesting character in the development of English. He was employed at the courts of Henry VIII and Mary I as a singer, musician, and playwright. His Proverbs is a comprehensive collection of those known at the time and includes many that are still with us:
- – Many hands make light work.
- – Rome wasn’t built in a day.
- – A good beginning makes a good ending.
and so on. These were expressed in the literary language of the day, as in “would yee both eat your cake, and have your cake?”, but the modern versions are their obvious descendents.