If you heard the phrase beating a dead horse and were confused by its meaning—and maybe also felt a little upset or sick to your stomach—you aren’t alone. Although it may have its origins in the violence it describes, fortunately, the expression is used as an idiom. It has a figurative rather than literal meaning not related to any kind of brutality against animals. Let’s explore this figurative definition, as well as uncover the phrase’s history.
What Does Beating a Dead Horse Mean?
When you hear this expression spoken or see it written, it’s describing the act of putting in effort or focus on something that’s impossible or no longer relevant or important. In other words, it describes the act of wasting one’s time, because there’s no way they can succeed and because their efforts aren’t likely to matter in the end. Often, it’s used to describe talking about a topic or subject after it has already been discussed at length or a decision about it has already been reached. Put simply, if you’re beating a dead horse, you’re engaged in a pointless pursuit.
It’s important to note that beating a dead horse is chiefly used in American English. The British English version of the idiom uses the word flog for beat: flogging a dead horse. Their meanings are exactly the same.
Here are some example sentences using the expression beating a dead horse:
- The judge made his ruling and it’s time to move on. Wishing for a different outcome is just beating a dead horse.
- You’re beating a dead horse trying to fit that square peg into a round hole.
- Your ex-husband is happily remarried; you’re beating a dead horse trying to win him back.
- We’ve talked and talked about it, Kim, there’s no need to keep beating a dead horse.
- I thought we had worked this problem out. Why do you insist on beating a dead horse?
The Origins of Beating a Dead Horse
As mentioned at the start of this post, it’s likely that the phrase did come from the idea of actually physically beating a horse. Historically in horse racing, particularly in the mid-1800s when the phrase may have first been used, it was viewed as acceptable for riders to “beat” or hit their horses with a riding crop in order to get them to run faster. (Today, jockeys are allowed to have whips in horse races, but they can’t be used for the purpose of encouraging a horse to increase their speed.) Knowing this, we can see how the phrase might have arisen. Beating a dead horse in order to make it run faster would be pointless, right? Doing so would never result in the desired outcome and thus would be a waste of time and effort.
Some scholars and experts believe that the phrase actually originated earlier, in the 17th century, when a horse symbolized hard work and the term dead horse was used to mean something without any current value.
The first recorded use of the expression, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, does appear to date to the middle of the 19th century and to the English politician and orator John Bright. He may have first used the expression in 1859. Reporting on one of his speeches, a journalist with the London newspaper Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser is purported to have written:
“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.”
In a later speech to Parliament, Bright is reported to have used it again, saying something to the effect of that trying to get members interested in the issue he was passionate about (the Reform Act of 1867) would be like trying to flog a dead horse. (Remember, flog is another word for beat.)
Other experts point to the first truly verifiable instance of the expression as an 1872 article in The Globe.
An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. As you’ve already discovered, these words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning: They don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
You now know that the phrase beating a dead horse isn’t used to describe a situation in which someone is enacting violence on a dead animal. It is used figuratively to describe a waste of time and effort.
Interestingly, beating a dead horse is just one of many horse idioms. Some common sayings using the word horse include: could eat a horse (as in being so hungry one could eat a horse); from the horse’s mouth; horse of another/different color; and on one’s high horse. An idioms dictionary, such as that from The Free Dictionary, will turn up many more.
Other common idioms today sound violent but aren’t intended that way, including curiosity killed the cat; discover the meanings of many more idioms here.
Synonyms for Beating a Dead Horse
If you’d like to describe the act of putting effort and attention into something where there’s little to no chance of success, but you don’t want to say or write the expression beating a dead horse, there are a variety of related words and phrases that you may be able to use instead. Some of the examples below are near-synonyms, meaning they may not have the exact same but rather a similar meaning to beating a dead horse, and can be used in its place depending on the circumstance.
- Dwell on
- Dwell upon
- Harp on
- Linger over
- Go on about
- Futz around
- Fritter away
- Trying to push water uphill
- Banging your head against a wall
- Don’t water a dead flower or No use watering a dead flower
Beating a dead horse is an idiomatic expression with a figurative rather than literal meaning. If you’re beating a dead horse, you’re engaged in a futile or pointless action. In other words, you’re pursuing a lost cause and wasting time and effort.
PS: Hungry for a huge vocabulary? Find a Scrabble Cheat Sheet of words, like horse, that start with the letter H, here.