Today’s script has been written by Estefanía García Diaz. You can listen to the Spanish version in today’s podcast. Today we feature two animals of very different sizes: a fly and a horse.
We have many sayings in Spain that refer to one of our favourite parts of the body: the mouth. This is not surprising. We are loud people, we tend to speak as fast as we can and we really don’t make much of an effort to stop bad-mouthing those who get on our nerves.
Hence we have this little proverb that reminds us of the need to be discreet: “En boca cerrada no entran moscas.” It can be literally translated as “Flies don’t enter a closed mouth,” the fly being that annoying insect with the power to retaliate against those who speak too much. I’m sure that those of you who’ve visited Spain in the summer know what I am talking about. Flies are a pain in the neck, especially in the countryside. We have even devised strange artefacts in the hope of getting rid of them. The most curious method I’ve come across is hanging transparent plastic bags filled with water from the ceiling. I don’t know how, but it works.
The thought of having a fly propelled into your mouth as a punishment for an indiscretion is very disgusting and at the same time, funny (funny strange and funny ha ha). I think the fact that this saying is so graphic is the main reason why it has remained in our language for so long. According to the Cervantes Institute, its origin dates back to 14th century Islamic Andalusia.
We have another saying relating to mouths and also to horses: “A caballo regalado no le mires el diente.” This translates literally into the Portuguese, Italian and English equivalent: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Meaning: be grateful.
The Cervantes Institute declares that this saying originated spontaneously from horse fairs where the traders used to look at horses’ teeth to determine their age and health. It seems to be universally true that with age our whole bodies go down, except for our gums: they go up instead. I asked my dentist Dr Lacaci, who told me that sometimes he can detect drug abuse and serious illnesses from inspecting a patient’s mouth. While it looks like this proverb has a scientific foundation, I’m not so sure about the origin of it as reported by the Cervantes Inst.
The choice of conveying the need for gratefulness so widely in Europe by using the horse and its teeth makes me doubtful that it originated spontaneously in horse fairs all over the continent. So in order to continue searching for the roots of this phrase I resorted to Wikidictionary. There I found that this proverb can be traced back to St Jerome’s Latin translation of the Epistle to the Ephesians in the New Testament, which reads “Equi donati dentes non inspiciuntur” which in English means, roughly: “Don’t inspect a gift horse’s teeth.”
If we are to learn something from these two proverbs is that, from an ethical perspective, we need to be discreet and grateful. However from a more practical point of view the message would be:
Watch your mouth and brush your teeth.
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