‘Beating a Dead Horse’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on May 20, 2023

Did someone say to you 'beating a dead horse,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

In short:

  • 'Beating a dead horse' means to continue doing something that is futile or to keep talking about something that has already been discussed at length.

What Does 'Beating a Dead Horse' Mean?

The idiom 'beating a dead horse' means to keep talking about a topic that has already been decided or discussed at length.

Another way to say this would be:

  • "To continue or persist far beyond any interest, purpose, or reason."

You might also hear this idiom using the word 'flogging' instead of 'beating,' as in 'flogging a dead horse.' 'Flogging a dead horse' is the British version of the phrase and shares the same meaning, while 'beating a dead horse' is most often used in the United States.

Where Does 'Beating a Dead Horse' Come From?

The expression 'flogging a dead horse' was first popularized by John Bright, an English orator and politician. In March of 1859, Bright spoke in the House of Commons in order to promote parliamentary reform. It is said that Bright stated that he felt he was 'flogging a dead horse' in reference to the results of his winter campaign.

  • The earliest cited usage of the phrase dates back to 1872, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This instance of the phrase in print appeared in The Globe newspaper in reference to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and his attempts to defend a bill in the Commons, saying that he:

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

The image that is called to mind by the idiom is the futility of flogging or beating a dead horse. It was understood that a horse could be made to run faster or work harder by hitting it. However, it seems quite unseemly in our modern day, and the expression reflects the uselessness of beating a horse that is already dead with the expectation that anything will happen.

Earlier Related Phrases

It is thought that this idiom might have originated as a slang phrase back in the 17th century, long before it was popularized and put in print. During this time, the horse was a symbol of hard work. For this reason, a "dead horse" became a metaphor for something that had become completely useless.

  • The phrase 'playing a dead horse' was used in gambling to describe wagering on something that was almost definitely going to result in a loss.

We find an example of this idiom in a collection of documents that Edward Harley, the Earl of Oxford, owned:

"Sir Humphry Foster had lost the greatest part of his estate, and then, playing, as it is said, for a dead horse, did, by happy fortune, recover it again."

'Working for a dead horse' was a phrase used in journeyman printer's slang in the 1700 and 1800s, which referred to carrying out work that was already charged for on a bill.

Use of 'Beating a Dead Horse' In Print

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'beating a dead horse' and 'beat a dead horse' seem to pick up steam in the late-1800s in publications, which lines up with the 1872 date noted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In a text from 1912 by Noel Birch entitled Modern Riding and Horse Education, we find an early 20th-century example of the idiom in print:

"Another reason given by the non-stirrup school was that the leg never straightened sufficiently if the pupil was allowed stirrups. At the risk of beating a dead horse I must again say that I think their anxiety was unfounded; many officers and men who had ridden before joining the Service learned the old straight-legged seat quickly enough in the riding school, and it cannot be doubted that most of them-- and I include myself-- have been taught at home with stirrups."

In a 1910 publication entitled Fly-leaves from a Fisherman's Diary by George Edward Sharp, we find an early 20th-century example of 'beat a dead horse':

"I have already expressed my disapproval of the grayling quite fully enough, and I am not going to beat a dead horse, but although I know a man, the best fisherman whom it has been my good fortune to watch, who would just as soon catch grayling as trout, I cannot get rid of my dislike for them."

Examples of 'Beating a Dead Horse' In Sentences

How would 'beating a dead horse' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "My coworker cannot understand that I am just as skilled and knowledgable as he is. He is constantly beating a dead horse and telling me the most basic information that he's communicated to me a million times."
  • "I know you're coming from a good place, but I already said no. Please stop beating a dead horse."
  • "I sent them a stern letter in January outlining our strong legal position, and they still seem like they want to take us to court. It seems like they won't understand that they don't have a case no matter what I do-- it feels like beating a dead horse at this point."
  • "Congrats on all of the awards you've received, but you've told us a million times. Seriously, you've got to stop beating a dead horse and move on."
  • "Sorry to bother you-- I'm not trying to beat a dead horse-- but I really feel like we need to talk about how we are going to proceed and come to a firm decision."

Other Ways to Say 'Beating a Dead Horse'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'beating a dead horse'?

Here are some options for phrases that mean doing something futile:

  • Beating one's head against a brick wall
  • Fighting a losing battle
  • Sisyphean task
  • Spinning one's wheels
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Chasing one's own tail

Final Thoughts About 'Beating a Dead Horse'

'Beating a dead horse' is an idiom that means to do something that is known to be futile or continue discussing something that has already been talked about at length or decided. The origin of 'beating a dead horse' stretches back to at least the late 19th century, but it might have been a slang phrase long before it first appeared in print.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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