I’ve heard this phrase before and have wondered about its origin. I have searched for information on the internet, but so far the journey has been fruitless. Any ideas?
Here is a WAG: It has to do with trying to sell a horse can claiming it is younger than it is. One way to tell a horse’s age is by looking at its teeth.
However, bear in mind that this is a WAG.
It’s a betting phrase; a tip on a horse race that is in the know, on the inside. i.e. the information is as good as direct from the source that knows best, the horse itself.
MY WAG is the same a Khadaji’s, backed up by the similar saying, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Only cite that I can find using the idiom, “etymology” and Google was this book description of What you say which agrees with us:
Maybe, maybe not.
Almost certainly from horse racing.
The earliest form of the phrase, so far, is 1908. Yes–I got it straight from the feed box and it’s right.
The earliest, so far, for the actual phrase you want is P.G. Wodehouse, 1928.
This guy supports the horse trading origin. Still, I haven’t seen any evidence that he’s definitely correct.
This one also talks of teeth, although it doesn’t specify why these experienced horsepeople are looking at them (same caveat):
A potentially more reputable cite is the Old Wives Tales site. It backs up the teeth aspect whilst bringing in the betting one. References are to the Why You Say It book that I mentioned previously and also A Fine Kettle Of Fish.
SDSTAFF Ken gets a mention on this message board (for an unrelated expression). Having established that board’s credentials by association, we can probably trust the post by Grendel . Apparently taken from A Hog On Ice & Other Curious Expressions: The Origin & Development Of The Pungent & Colorful Phrases We All Use. A new spin on why you’d want to establish the age.
This is correct, but only half the story. You see, the teeth of horses, like those of many other herbivores, continue to grow throughout their lives. One of the ways that dishonest horse dealers used to try to deceive buyers was by taking a file and filing the horse’s teeth down (shorter).
A knowledgeable person can tell whether the horse has been “bishoped” (one of the 19th century terms for the above procedure) by checking whether the horse’s upper and lower teeth meet when they are brought together. If not, the teeth have been filed.
If you want to know if your gift horse is long in the tooth, you can get the information straight from the horse’s mouth. Then you collapse from an overdose of cliches.
I’m sorry I just had to bump this ancient thread because that is too funny to let die^
Can you tell how fast a zombie horse will run, just by examining its zombie teeth?
samclem, do you remember which Wodehouse novel or short story?
Sam is in all probability referring to this 1928 cite for the phrase in OED.
Checking this Wodehouse bibliography we find that Wodehouse’s story for the August 1928 edition of Strand was The Reverent Wooing of Archibald (the ‘Reverend’ of the bibliography is a misprint for ‘Reverent’ - see the Wikipedia page for the story.)
See, you can take a bunch of cliches, but eventually even a tiny one too many will collapse everything, like the straw…