AE 421 – Expression: Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Learn Australian English in this expression episode of The Aussie English Podcast where I teach you how to use the English expression DON’T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH like a native speaker.

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AE 421 – Expression: To Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

In 1930, life in Australia was tough. Jobs were hard to get, money was scarce, but there was a guaranteed way to make some cash. If you could scrape together a shilling, a pound, or a fiver, you could put it on a horse. Not just any horse, but a horse that was bound to win. A sure thing. Phar Lap.

G’day you mob! How’s it going? (I) Decided to call you guys “you mob”, you know, come up with a name for the listeners. Get you guys a little bit more Australian culture. “You mob” is the kind of expression that people often use in Australia to refer to a group of people, and it comes from the idea that a mob of kangaroos is a group of kangaroos. And so, you use the collective noun “mob” to talk about a group of kangaroos. And so, a lot of Australians will say “you mob” instead of “you guys” or “you lot”. So, g’day you mob. How are you going?

Intro Scene:

Today’s intro scene is a snippet from a story by AnimalXTV on YouTube, and again, (the) link is in the transcript or on the website. It’s about Australia’s, and maybe the world’s, greatest ever racehorse Phar Lap. So, ask any Australian and they’ll know the name Phar Lap. It seemed like a good time to tell you guys about him considering today’s expression is related to horses. So, his death was nearly as mysterious as his career was successful, but we’ll get into that in today’s Aussie Fact.

So, as usual guys, get a welcome to The Aussie English Podcast. This is the number one podcast for anyone and everyone wanting to learn Australian English. Whether you want to learn to understand Aussies or you want to learn to speak like an Australian, this is the podcast for you, and it’s brought to you by The Aussie English Classroom an online learning environment where you get all the bonus content for these expression episodes and the interview episodes on the podcast with courses, lessons, quizzes. You can meet other people. There are speaking challenges. There’s a whole bunch of extra content in there designed to help you learn Australian English even faster. So, don’t forget to sign up and give that a go if you haven’t already. It’s a dollar for your first month. (The) link’s in the description.

And also, don’t forget to get the free downloads for today’s episode as well. Make sure you go to the website and download the transcript and the MP3 if you want to study this anywhere, anytime.

Aussie Joke:

So, today guys, let’s get into the Aussie joke. Today’s Aussie joke, again related to horses. You’ll remember in the last expression episode, to stab someone in the back, I told a joke about so-and-so walking into a bar. So, those ‘walking into a bar’ jokes are very popular in English, and today’s is another one, and it fits well with the horse theme for today’s episode. Okay. So, here’s the joke:

A horse walks into a bar one day and the bartender says, “Hey!”, and the horse says, “You read my mind!”. “You read my mind”. Do you get that guys? A horse walks into a bar one day and the bartender, the guy behind the bar, says, “Hey!”, and the horse says, “You read my mind!”, as in, “You knew exactly what I was thinking”, because horses like to eat “Hay”. Except “hay” the food the grass that horses eat is spelt H-A-Y, and the greeting “Hey”, which the bartender use there is H-E-Y. So, it’s another pun for you guys with the word “Hey!”.


Alright, today’s expression guys is “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. I wonder if you guys have heard this expression before. “Don’t look at gift horse in the mouth”. So, it’s a proverb, a short and expressive saying in common use recognised as conveying an accepted truth or useful advice.

So, I’m sure you’ve got two questions, though: What the hell is a gift horse? And, why should I not look it in the mouth?

So, this is one of those expressions I’ve heard and I learnt from a very young age, but I never really understood what it meant literally until I was much older, and I’m sure that happens to you guys in your native language too.


Anyway, before we go through the definition of the expression and its origin, let’s go through the definition of the words in the expression.

Okay. So, “to look”. The verb “to look” is to examine with the eyes to examine with the eyes. And if you “look something in the something”, say you can look something in the face, you could look something in the back, whatever it is, it’s to face something with your eyes and look at that thing. So, if you look something in the mouth, you’re examining it and looking into its mouth with your eyes. You’re looking something in the mouth.

“A horse”. I’m sure you guys know what “A horse” is. It’s a four-legged farm animal often ridden by people as a hobby or for farm work or in sports. It’s a mammal. “A horse”. It’s got a long neck they tend to be about, what, eight nine 10 feet high. They tend to be pretty tall.

“A gift horse” is a horse given to someone as a gift. “A gift horse”. A horse given as a gift, given as a present.

And the last word “a mouth”. I’m sure you guys know what “a mouth” is. “A mouth” is what I’m currently using to talk. It is the orifice on an animal’s head in which food is placed, chewed, or swallowed. Or in the case of me right now, it is the thing I am using to talk.

So, those are the different words in today’s expression. But let’s go through the expression itself and define that, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, and I should add, you are going to hear this in the negative most often. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. You probably won’t ever hear, “Oh yeah, look a gift horse in the mouth” in the affirmative there.

Expression Definition & Origin:

Alright, so the definition. We’ve established that “A gift horse” is a horse given to someone as a gift or as a present. So, when purchasing horses, back in the day, you know, back in the past, it was a good idea, (it) probably still is a good idea, to check the horse’s health and age by examining the quality of its teeth. And in order to look at the teeth, you have to look the horse in the mouth. Longer teeth obviously mean the horse is older, because they have teeth that keep growing, and fewer teeth obviously suggests the horse might be in poor health, and you don’t want a horse that can’t eat.

So, the idea behind the expression, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, is that it’s bad manners to examine, to inspect, or to scrutinise a gift and wish for more than you’ve been given. It shows mistrust towards the giver, right? You don’t get something for free and then examined to see if it’s up to your standards. So, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, effectively just means, don’t be ungrateful when you receive a gift.

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So, the origin of this expression. This was another one of these cool English expressions that is quite old, and some of the sentences that I’m about to read to you in Middle English. So, I really recommend reading the transcript and checking out the spelling of some of these words. Okay?

So, anyway, as with most proverbs, the origin of “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is pretty ancient and unknown. It’s at least 450-500 years old in the English language, and it appeared in print in English in 1546, in John Heywood’s A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. And again, I recommend looking up how that spelt. So, you’ll see the old English spelling before it was standardised. So, it was written in this book. “No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”

So, make sure you check out the spelling guys. There one thing you might notice is that there are lots of U’s where there should be V’s. And so, prior to the standardisation of English spelling, U was obviously used instead of a V.

So, Heywood likely obtain this phrase, though, from a Latin text from St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, and this is from 400 A.D., so 1,600 years old, which contains the text, “Noli equi dentes inspicere donate”, which is Latin that I have probably mispronounced, and it means, “Never inspect the teeth of a given horse”. So, where St. Jerome got it from who knows. But one thing for sure is that this is a very old expression.


So, as usual guys, let’s go through some examples of how I would use the expression, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. We’ll go through a little listen and repeat exercise, and then we’ll go through today’s Aussie fact.


So, examples. Example number one. Imagine you’re a young kid. You’re 18 years old in Australia. You’ve finally gotten your license. So, you’ve gotten your P-plates, your probationary plates, once you’ve completed your license test to drive. You got your license. Your dad and your mum have scraped together all this money. They’ve scraped together some savings to buy you your first car. This is something that I didn’t have the luxury of. My parents helped me. They gave me a little bit of money, but they didn’t buy me the car outright just for me. So, your parents tell you it’s out the front of the house, and that you guys should walk outside and check it out, and the first thing that you do, once they take you out there, is look under the hood of the car to see if there’s an oil leak, to see if there’s anything wrong with the engine, and maybe you noticed something, and then you complain about it, and you say, “Oh, there’s an issue with the car that you’ve given me!”. Your folks might tell you, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, mate. It’s a free car. Why are you complaining? Don’t be ungrateful. Don’t question what you’ve received as a gift. Just take it and be happy. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”.


Example number two. Imagine that you’ve gone on a road trip through the Aussie Outback. Maybe you’ve gone to see Uluru or maybe you’ve gone to see… I don’t know, any of these other places out in the Australian outback. You’ve gone with your mates, and the car that you’ve had has broken down. You’ve waited for a few days and you’ve run out of food and water. So, now you guys decide together that you’ll have to set off on a hike back down the road, which is incredibly long, maybe it’s a hundred kilometres, and you know that it’s dangerous, but you need water and food. Just as you guys get ready to set off, someone happens to drive down the road and find you. You turn to your mate and you say, “What are the chances of this? Why on earth is someone here? Why would they be driving down this road? It’s so desolate.”, and your friend might say, “Dude! Don’t question it! Be happy that someone saved us from dehydration, from an unpleasant death in the desert. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”. Don’t be ungrateful. Don’t question what you’ve received. Just take it and be happy. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth Michael Jackson.


Alright last example. Example number three. You and your friends are getting ready to go out on the town. So, maybe some girls, you’re some sheilas, you’re putting on your makeup, you’re doing your… you’re tarting yourself up a little bit, making yourself look nice, so that when you go out on the town, you know, you can have a good time with your friends. So, you call up an Uber or you call a taxi, and it’s really busy that night. You know, it’s a Saturday night. The busiest night of the week for people going out. And they say they’re going to take an hour to come and pick you up. So, you guys reconcile yourselves to waiting, but one of you decides, your mate decides, “Ah, screw this! I’m going to message one of my friends and see if they can give us a lift so they can come and pick us up and drive us to this place.”. So, this person calls their mate who says, “No dramas! All good! I’ll come get you now”. And you say that you don’t actually like that person. So, your friend’s friend you don’t like, and you’d rather not get a lift with them and just wait instead, and your friend turns to you and says, “Dude! Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Don’t complain. Let’s just get this lift it’s a short trip. We’ll be there in no time and we can start partying. Don’t be ungrateful. Don’t question what you’ve received. Just take it and be happy. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”.

So, I hope you guys understand now what the expression, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” can mean. It can mean: Don’t be ungrateful when you receive a gift, don’t be critical of that gift, don’t refuse something you’ve been given, or don’t be unappreciative of or question a gift that you’ve received.

So, as usual, let’s go through a little listen and repeat exercise, guys. So, this is your chance to practice your pronunciation, your Australian or your English intonation, the rhythm of speaking. Imitate me exactly as I speak in order to practice your pronunciation, guys. This is your chance to do so. Let’s go.

Listen & Repeat Exercise:

To look
To look a
To look a gift
To look a gift horse
To look a gift horse in
To look a gift horse in the
To look a gift horse in the mouth

I’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth
You’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth
He’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth
she’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth
we’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth
they’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth
it’d never look a gift-horse in the mouth

Great job, guys. Great job. Remember if you want to practice your pronunciation and focus on the connected speech in more depth from today’s episode, from today’s listen and repeat exercise, make sure that you join up to the Aussie English Classroom where we go through this in detail. This is the place where I try to really teach you guys how to speak with an Australian English accent, and you can focus on all the nitty gritty detailed stuff. So, remember you can try that for a dollar for the first month when you sign up. Just head over to

Aussie Fact:

So, today guys we’re going to go through Phar Lap, we’re going to talk about Phar Lap, in the Aussie English fact.

So, Phar Lap was a champion thoroughbred racehorse, and he was born on the 4th of October in 1926, so about 90 years ago. He died at the age of 5 on the 5th of April 1932 under very mysterious circumstances, which we’ll get on to in a bit.

So, the name Phar Lap derives from a Zhuang and Thai word for lightning, and literally means “Sky flash”.

He had other nicknames too, including, “Wonder Horse”, “Red Terror”, “Bobby”, and “Big Red”. He was foaled in New Zealand and trained and raced in Australia by Harry Telford, and Phar Lap was a chestnut gelding and was sired by a horse named ‘Night Raid’ from a black New Zealand bred thoroughbred mare called ‘Entreaty’.

He was purchased at auction for a mere 160 guineas in 1928 by an American businessman named David J. Davis who had been persuaded to buy the horse by a Sydney trainer named Harry Telford. Initially, thinking it was an amazing bargain, Davis became pretty angry once he received the colt and it arrived with a face covered in warts, a very gangly figure, and a very awkward gait when it was walking. In order to placate Davis Telford agreed to train the horse for free in exchange for a two thirds share of any winnings, which was a good choice as you guys will find out.

Although standing a winning racehorse at stud can be quite lucrative, Telford gelded Phar Lap, meaning that he castrated the horse, so that it couldn’t have babies in the future, hoping that the colt would then concentrate on racing instead of obviously concentrating on female horses.

Phar Lap lived up to the saying, “Looks can be deceiving” and “Don’t judge a book by its cover” as he received training from Telford and began to win races. His achievements captured the public’s imagination in Australia during the early years of the Great Depression, and he had a very distinguished career and dominated Australian racing winning a Melbourne Cup, two Cox Plates, and an AJC Derby, as well as 19 other weight for age races.

So, he won 34 out of 38 races that he was entered into, including 14 of these in a row. He won 14 in a row. He was the only horse to have been favourite for the Melbourne Cup three times in a row, and as a result of his success, bookmakers started to lose a lot of money, and the Mafia and other groups were not happy about this, especially when he headed over to the U.S..

So, soon after doing really well in Australia, he went to a race in the Americas Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico, and he won this in record time in his final race.

At the time, he was the third highest stakes winner in the world. He had been bought for only 160 guineas, which was USD$130 at the time, and he’d won nearly £67,000, which is AUD$6.3 million dollars in today’s money. So, he was bought for the equivalent of about AUD$13,000 dollars and ended up earning his owners AUD$6.3 million. Not a bad return on investment, hey guys?

So, Phar Lap suffered a sudden and mysterious illness in 1932 in Atherton, California. Phar Lap’s strapper, Tommy Woodcock, found Phar Lap in severe pain with a high temperature early on the 5th of April 1932. Within a few hours, Phar Lap had haemorrhaged to death. An autopsy revealed the horse’s stomach and intestines were inflamed leading many to believe that the horse had been deliberately poisoned.

Later research found evidence suggesting other possible causes though including: an acute bacterial gastroenteritis, so an infection of the stomach and intestines; or that it could have been poisoning by a single dose of arsenic.

On top of this, anecdotal evidence from a friend of the late strapper for the horse, though, Tommy Woodcock, suggests the horse was allowed to graze on pasture covered in a poisonous plant the night before his death.

It was also thought that the Mafia at the time were getting frustrated with him winning all of these different races, and they may have played a part in the horse’s death as well.

So, it’s uncertain whether or not we will ever know how the horse Phar Lap died, but one thing for sure is that he lives on in the imagination of many Australians and had an amazing career.

And if you would like to check out lap. You can see his taxidermied body at Museum Victoria in Victoria, in Melbourne, or you can check out his huge heart, a massive 6.2 kilos, nearly twice the size of a regular horse’s heart, at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

So, that’s it for today guys. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I hope you enjoyed learning about Phar Lap. And just remember, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth next time someone gives you something, and I’ll chat to you mob later.

See ya!

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