beat a dead horse
beat a dead horse
also, flog a dead horse
The idiom “beat a dead horse” is a fascinating expression that has its roots deeply embedded in history. It is commonly used in English-speaking countries to describe the act of persistently pursuing a lost cause or wasting effort on something that has already failed.
- spend time and effort on things that are hopeless and unchangeable.
- to continue discussing a topic even after it has been decided or discussed.
- express that a particular course of action or ongoing discussion is fruitless.
- used to describe an effort that is futile and a waste of time with no benefit.
- to argue over a previously settled matter.
- Tom still has hope that his wife will come back to him, but he is actually beating a dead horse.
- “Why are you beating a dead horse when Christine has already declined your offer?”
- Don’t beat a dead horse; it’s all over now.
- Trying to interest your son in studying is like beating a dead horse.
- Whatever destiny was, it happened. Now stop beating a dead horse.
The origins of the idiom “beat a dead horse” can be traced back to the early 17th century, where horses played a vital role in transportation, agriculture, and warfare. During this era, horses were precious commodities, and their well-being was paramount. Tragically, horses would sometimes die due to exhaustion, illness, or injuries sustained in battles.
The idiom first appeared in written records in the early 19th century. The term is credited to British essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who used a variation in his work “A Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1755. He wrote, “To beat a horse that is dead,” which later evolved into the phrase we know today.
However, it’s essential to note that similar expressions have been found in even earlier works, indicating that the idiom had already become a recognizable part of colloquial language. The term “a dead horse” in a figurative sense can be found in Richard Brome’s play The Antipodes, which was first performed in 1638 and published in 1640. It reads:
“That is, ’twas sold to pay his debts – all went
That way for a dead horse, as one would say!”
A very similar variant of the idiom, “flogging a dead horse,” appeared in print in 1859 in a report of a UK parliamentary debate.
Over the centuries, “beat a dead horse” has evolved and adapted into various regional and linguistic variants. In Australia, for instance, people say “flogging a dead horse,” while in America, it is commonly expressed as “beating a dead horse.” These linguistic nuances add richness to the idiom’s usage.
Although Samuel Johnson is often credited with the first recorded usage of the phrase, language and idioms are ever-evolving, and it’s challenging to pinpoint a single individual as the definitive coiner. Likely, the idiom emerged organically through common usage within the horse-centric culture of the time.
In conclusion, the idiom “beat a dead horse” holds a significant place in the English language, drawing from a historical context that reflects the importance of horses in centuries past. Understanding its origin and history enriches our appreciation of this enduring and insightful idiom.