Beat a Dead Horse (Origin)

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Beat a Dead Horse"?

The term "beat a dead horse" means to press on with an issue that has already ended. The original version, which is still the one most commonly used in Britain, is "flog a dead horse."

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To Beat a Dead Horse (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Continuing to argue about it would be like beating a dead horse - there's no point in discussing a topic that has already been settled.
  • Bringing up past mistakes won't accomplish anything; it's just flogging a dead horse.
  • He kept trying to convince them to change their minds, but it was like beating a dead horse - they had already made up their minds.
  • They spent hours discussing the issue, even though it was clear that they were flogging a dead horse and no resolution would be reached.
  • She kept revisiting the topic, beating a dead horse and refusing to move on to more productive conversations.
This idiom would have required little explanation in the 19th century when horses provided power for farms and transportation. Back then, flogging (whipping) a horse was a method for forcing a stubborn or sick horse to work. Of course, flogging a dead horse would be pointless. Therefore, the saying is a metaphor for doing something that is entirely pointless as the outcome has already been decided.

"Flogging a dead horse" first appeared in print in 1859 (evidence) in Hansard. (NB: Hansard is the traditional name of the transcripts of UK Parliamentary debates.)

The Hansard record (Volume 153:1859) covers a debate involving Francis Wemyss-Charteris Douglas (8th Earl of Wemyss, 6th Earl of March), who was also known as "Lord Elcho":
  • If the hon. Member for Birmingham [John Bright] had been present, he would have asked the hon. Gentleman [Lord Elcho] whether he was satisfied with the results of his winter campaign. It was notorious that he was not, and a saying was attributed to him that he found he was "flogging a dead horse."

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.