Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Beating A Dead Horse

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 29, 2011

When you hear the expression beating or flogging a dead horse the reference is to how much time is being wasted doing something that’s been tried and that failed in the past.  An example of this is in the 2009 news story entitled “Calm Sotomayor Cautious On Abortion Issue” from Agence France-Presse (AFP) American Edition that read in part:

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told ABC television news that he had not asked about those remarks on Tuesday “because so many other people asked about it and how many times can you beat a dead horse to death.”

“I feel more comfortable dealing with the facts of the law and the cases than I am, you know, whether people are sincere in what they say,” he told ABC’s News Shuffle podcast.

Back in 1952, the Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY addressed the issue of a bridge that needed building in a news story entitled, “We Don’t Need More Studies, We Need A New Bridge!”  One of the most telling and humourous comments in the story was this line:

One thing that distinguishes Louisville from other cities is that we don’t just beat a dead horse; we keep beating the horse well into its next incarnation. This argument has been going on in one form or another for over 60 years.

The New Zealand Tablet of August 16, 1900 carried an obituary relating to the death of Lord Charles Russell (1832 – 1900) of Killowen, lawyer, former Attorney General, and Lord Chief Justice of England.  The most memorable of the cases in which he was involved was known as the Parnell Commission which took place in 1888 through 1889, lasting 128 days.  The speech he delivered on April 12, 1889 in favour of the Irish leader and his party last a full 2 hours and was said to be “the greatest and most impressive speech ever delivered on the subject of Ireland.”  The obituary included an excerpted passage from news reports the day following this now-famous speech:

Sir Charles Russell began with a rapid survey of the charges made by the Times against the Irish leaders.  The first of them was that the Irish leaders had based their movement on crime, not stopping short even at the line of murder, had not the accusers spoken of the enforcement of the high decrees of secret conclaves with the bullet and the knife.  Yesterday, said Sir Charles Russell, when dealing with the letters, “I felt I was flogging a dead horse.  But take those letters away and what becomes of the acusers’ evidence?”  Among the alleged members of the supposed murderous conclave were Messrs. Sheridan, Egan, Branna, against whom no proof whatever had been produced.  Mr. Brennan, for example, was, as Sir Charles Russell again repeated, imprisoned in May 1881, nearly six months before the supposed formation of the murderous society, the ‘Invincibles of Phoenix Park, and he was released on the 16th of June 1882, after the murder.

While there are many, including The Globe (see: published news article of August 1, 1872), who claim that the first recorded use of the expression was in 1872 by British politician and orator John Bright, referring to the Reform Bill of 1867, there are earlier published accounts of the expression such as the Letter to the Editor of the Taranaki Herald on August 19, 1865 which included this paragraph:

With the people rest the blame; they possess electoral privileges for which thousands in England sigh in vain, but will not use them; and for all the good the suffrage is to the mass of the people they might just as well be slaves as free men — for the slave who struggles for freedom is a nobler being than the free man who values not the heaven-born gift, as shown in his indifference to the exercise of its legitimate uses in helping to maintain the freedom he scarcely deserves.  And to urge many of the electors to exercise their privilege as a duty is something like flogging a dead horse.

In documents dating back to 1823 and addressing the Wincanton Town Properties, the re-appointment of the Trustees who controlled the three properties that were conferred by Royal Charter on the town back in 1579 entered the in the town journal:

The Fairs and Markets Trust is the only one impoverished, and that has arisen from the diversion of these institutions in the streets to fields elsewhere, and by the inevitable freedom of commerce brought about by railways and other intercommunication. To expect a return to the old regime is as hopeless as flogging a dead horse into activity, or of mopping back the incoming tide.

And in a letter dated October 29, 1796 to Rear Admiral Young who was in command of the H.M.S. Victory in Martello Bay, the following was shared with Young:

The utility of flogging a dead horse is not altogether apparent; however, as Sir George Clarke quotes Lord St. Vincent, I will do the same.

Dead horse is 17th century slang that refers to pay issued to a worker prior to the work being done. The expression was a figure of speech for “something that has ceased to be useful” and is attested from the 1630s.  Idiomation was unable to find additional information on the expression prior to this date.

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