Where Did "Beating a Dead Horse" Originate?

Posted by Crystal Long
Horse looks over fence.

In the English language, we have a saying: "beating a dead horse". While we've all heard of this phrase, have you ever wondered its origins?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the idiom beat a dead horse means:

"1. To keep talking about a subject that has already been discussed or decided, or 2. to waste time and effort trying to do something that is impossible."

Yes indeed, in American English, we use the phrase "beating a dead horse" or simply "beat a dead horse" to describe a situation when doing something is a waste of time as there will not be a result, or it's just wasting time on a lost cause. And now, we've all heard the saying "stop beating a dead horse", but have you ever wondered where did this common phrase originate from? Does it really have to do with horse racing?

Where Does "Beating a Dead Horse" Come From?

Deriving from the UK phrase 'flogging a dead horse' (alternatively 'beating a dead horse' in American English, or 'beating a dead dog' in some parts of the English-speaking world), this common idiom is very likely to come from the literal meaning of beating a horse, or flogging a horse -- as flog in the UK, means beat in American English.

In horse racing, especially back in the day, the jockey uses a riding crop to "beat" the horse in order to make it run faster. With this in mind, it can be seen where the common saying might have originated from: Beating a horse that's already dead would be completely pointless as no amount of beating would make it move, i.e. the meaning of 'beat a dead horse'.

Rumored to be first used and popularized by English politician John Bright in the mid 19th century, the first recorded use of the phrase was in 1859, where a journalist wrote in the London newspaper Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser:

"It was notorious that Mr. Bright was dissatisfied with his winter reform campaign and rumor said that he had given up his effort with the exclamation that it was like flogging a dead horse."

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READ MORE: Comforting Words: 7 Horse Quotes You Need to Hear After Losing a Horse

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Where Did "Beating a Dead Horse" Originate?