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Proverb, analyzed: ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’


Hannah Anderson/The Olaf Messenger


I’ve often heard people say, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Apparently, it means something along the lines of this: “If you’re given something as a gift, don’t scrutinize it or attempt to find fault in it.” However, my career as an English major has tired me from deep dives into metaphorical language. Hence, I’m going to examine this proverb at face value.  


I, for one, know nothing about horses. Imagining a situation in which I would be given a horse as a gift baffles me. Perhaps I should set the scene to more accurately examine this proverb. Let’s say, in some fantasy world, I allow a knight to hide in my little cottage as he’s running away from certain death at the hands of his enemies. As a thank you, he gifts me a horse. Now, what am I to do with a horse? Can I say no to a present from a knight? So, sure, I accept the gift. 


Now, you may be thinking, “Kaya, you accepted the gift horse without looking it in the mouth!” I sure did, but think back to the proverb. It states: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” There is no specificity of time. So, here I must go back to the imagined scenario.


Imagine it’s ten years later. Let’s assume the horse is still alive. For the last month, the horse has been acting off. I must examine it to determine the cause of its ailment. However, I’ve come up with nothing after searching its entire body for any signs of pain or disease — except, I haven’t checked its mouth, and I can’t look it in the mouth because the proverb tells me not to. It dies a week later. 


Maybe if there wasn’t a proverb telling me “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I could have saved its life. Nevertheless, the horse is dead, and I’ve learned the hard way not to take proverbs literally.


Kaya Stark is from Wrenshall, Minn. 

Her majors are English and philosophy.