Beat a Dead Horse (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

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."
To Beat a Dead Horse (Origin)
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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