Glossary Home Idioms

Beat a dead horse

“Beat a dead horse” is an idiom that describes someone’s attempt to complete or achieve something that is futile or wasted.

“Beat a dead horse” is an interesting idiom that dates back to the 17th century and is used in everyday conversations among friends, family members, and colleagues. The phrase suggests that someone is trying to accomplish something futile and is continuing to do so long after the point where they should’ve stopped. This could apply to anything from pursuing a job opportunity, working on a personal project, or fixing a relationship.  

Beat a dead horse

 

Meaning of “Beat a dead horse”

“Beat a dead horse” is an English idiom that refers to wasted effort. If someone is perusing something that is purposeless then they are said to be “beating a dead horse.” As they strive toward the goal, they’re making no progress, just as one would get nowhere sitting on a dead horse and beating it. Earlier versions of the phrase use different words, like “flogging” rather than “beating” and “dog” rather than “horse,” but the meaning is the same. 

 

When To Use “Beat a dead horse”

It’s possible to use “beat a dead horse” in a wide variety of situations. It can apply to almost anything one can think of but is best used when one is among friends, family members, and close colleagues. As idioms go, it’s a very informal one. It might not be appropriate for all formal settings, like business meetings and academic lectures. One might find alternative ways of saying the same thing that is just as effective and would not compromise one’s professionalism. 

 

Example Sentences

  • Would you stop it! You’re just beating a dead horse now. There’s nothing you can do about this. 
  • She just kept beating a dead horse like something was going to change. 
  • I hated to tell him that there was no point. He was just beating a dead horse. 
  • How long until you think he realizes that he’s beating a dead horse?
  • Once they stopped returning my calls I knew any further effort would be wasted. I might as well beat a dead horse. 

 

Why Do Writers Use “Beat a dead horse?” 

Writers use “beat a dead horse” in the same way and for the same reasons that the phrase is used in everyday conversations. It’s quite easy to imagine this idiom or one that has a similar meaning, woven into the dialogue between two characters. One might be suffering from the delusion that they can change something that’s happening to them while the other uses the phrase as a way of driving home the point that they can’t alter their circumstances. A writer might also choose to use the phrase in a narrator’s descriptions of a scene or a character. 

When using phrases like this, the writer is attempting to make the character’s thoughts and speech more relatable to those reading them. If a reader comes upon a phrase in a novel that they use in everyday life, they’re more likely to connect to the character who used it. Idioms, proverbs, and other colloquialisms are also helpful when writers are trying to define a character’s personality and even their origin. For example, if a writer uses a very specific, regional idiom that isn’t used in other parts of the world. 

 

Origins of “Beat a dead horse”

Some believe that the idiom originated in 17th-century slang with references to a horse as a symbol of hard work. There are some examples in which the phrase “dead horse” was used to refer to someone getting paid for work they hadn’t done yet. With the payment in hand, there was no need to do the work itself. 

It’s thought that a version of the idiom “beat a dead horse” was popularized by John Bright, an English politician but the earliest iteration of the phrase dates back to 1872 and The Globe newspaper. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase being used in the following quote related to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s efforts to defend a particular bill in the Commons. The lines read: 

might be said to have rehearsed that particularly lively operation known as flogging a dead horse. 

When it was used several years later, in 1859, it was applied to John Bright’s opinion of his winter campaign. He was reported as feeling as though he was “flogging a dead horse.” 

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