Wednesday, August 25, 2021

RETRO Episode 29: Beat a Dead Horse Show Notes

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Bunny Trails 

RETRO Episode 29: Beating a dead horse

Record Date: August 22, 2021

Air Date: August 25, 2021

Welcome to the cold open for Bunny Trails: A Word History podcast. 

I’m Shauna Harrison. This week, Dan is sick. The worst kind of sick for a podcaster… a sore throat. He’s on medication and we expect to be back with a new episode next week. But for now, we are going to share one from the archives.

This one comes to us from the “before times”, back in November 2018. This is episode 29, so it’s from some of our earlier recordings. We were just realizing that we didn’t have to talk quite so fast - though we still talk pretty quickly in this one. Also, we started allowing for more space in the editing as well. I’m not sure why we thought we needed to make things so tight because it just makes it sound like we were interrupting each other a bunch. Maybe we thought if we stopped talking too long you would turn off the show. 

But it turns out, you’ve stuck with us for over 3 years now. Thank you! And while we are thanking people, I want to give a shout out to our Patrons. They are the folks that make this show possible. If you want to be like Pat Rowe, Mary Halsig-Lopez, and many others, then head over to and see how you can support this educational artform for as little as a dollar a month. 

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friends and family download a podcasting app, subscribe to the show, and then showing them how to listen! 

Okay, now I feel like I’m just beating a dead horse here. So enjoy episode 29 from November 14, 2018 on the phrase Beat a Dead Horse.


This was from way back when we didn’t say words belong to their users together. I can’t believe it took us 29 or more episodes to figure that out. 


Bunny Trails

Episode 29: Beating a dead horse

Record Date: October 12, 2018

Air Date: November 14, 2018


Dan: Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh

Shauna: And I’m Shauna Harrison

When I was growing up, my dad would occasionally get off the phone with his buddy and say that he was “beating a dead horse”. I didn’t pay much attention to the context because I was too busy trying to figure out why his buddy, who lived in the city, had a horse… which was dead… and then what the benefit might have been of him hitting it. I could tell my dad didn’t think it was a good idea either, but I never got past the imagery to figure out what he actually meant. 


Shauna: Flogging a dead horse, alternatively beating a dead horse, or beating a dead dog. I hadn’t heard flogging a dead horse, but it turns out to be the more popular version, at least in literature over the years and in the UK. 

This idiom means that someone is pursuing an endeavor that is a waste of time, possibly because the outcome has already been determined. It’s sometimes used in reference to conversations. So that person who continues discussing a topic despite the fact that the outcome won’t change is beating a dead horse. 

Which makes me think that my dad was a good friend. He would listen to his buddy talk through the same thing about once or twice a month and just let him get it out, even though nothing was going to change.

Origins and History

Let’s jump right in to this crazy nonsense. Dead horse was used on its own for centuries before the full idiom became popular, but even then the term was used to represent futile efforts. So, what is a dead horse? 

19.   dead horse  n. taken as the type of that which has ceased to be of use, and which it is vain to attempt to revive. to work (etc.) for a dead horse (also  to work the dead horse): to do work which has been paid for in advance, and so brings no further profit: cf. sense 14   and horse-flesh n. 3b to flog (also to mount on) a dead horse: to attempt to revive a feeling or interest which has died out; to engage in fruitless effort.

A dead horse is a horse that’s no longer useful or when used figuratively, something that’s as useful as a dead horse. 

  • The first time dead horse was recorded as a phrase was in 1640. It was seen in the play The Antipodes: A Comedie by Richard Brome.

    • His land..'twas sold to pay his debts: All went That way, for a dead horse, as one would say.

  • The Crucifying of the World, by the Cross of Christ, Etc By Richard Baxter: This was printed in 1658 and is an attempt to help Nobles, Gentlemen, and the Rich grow even richer. - i.e. “spiritually rich”. I’ll read a portion… 

  • So he’s saying here that profits and possessions are worthless without God being the purpose. But I really feel like the next bit drives the point home. 

  • He just really wants everyone to understand how important this is to him. But really to bring it back to the horses… Clearly people frequently used a dead horse as a way to represent that someone’s efforts were in vain.  

  • In 1793 in a book by James Caulfield. There is the short title of the book, which is Blackguardiana. I think the extended title is better, though. 

    • Blackguardiana: or, A Dictionary of … Rogues, Bawds, Pickpockets, Mail-robbers, Murderers, Pirates, and some other, far more unpleasant things … ILLUSTRATED… With eighteen Portraits of the most remarkable Professors in every Species of Villainy. INTERSPERSED… With many curious Anecdotes, Cant Terms, Flash Songs, and more… THE WHOLE…  Intended to put Society on their guard against Depredators… and so on. 

    • The section of the book that we are referencing is a series of definitions. In this case, it is defining “dead horse”. 

  • This firmly establishes the definition for dead horse in the late 1700s as a figurative phrase.

***Shauna from the future here… the way, way future. 

-Otomy means to cut into the body, but not necessarily to remove from the body. Okay… back to the show***

  • Moving forward a little to 1832, E.C. Wines writes, 

    • “Dead horses are debts due to the purser on account of advances of pay.”

    • This was in his book Two years and a half in the Navy: or, journal of a cruise in the Mediterranean and Levant, on board the U.S. frigate Constellation in the years 1829, 1830, and 1831

    • They are working for money that’s already been spent. 

  • This theme continues on until the late 1800s when we start to see dead horse used in combination with flogging or beating almost at the same time in United States.

    • From the Globe out of London in 1872, “For..twenty minutes..the Premier..might be said to have rehearsed that..lively operation known as flogging a dead horse.” - implying that he carried on… 

  • We see this again in 1887 in The Dictionary of National Biography

    • In the text, Morley says, “In parliament he again pressed the necessity of reducing expenditure. Friends warned him … that he was flogging a dead horse.”

I find it really interesting that both the term dead horse on its own and the phrase flogging or beating a dead horse continued to crop up in various texts throughout even the early 1900s. Evidenced by its lack of appearance in articles or books after 1910, the term dead horse seems to have dropped off after that time. It did show up in one more text that I ran across. 

  • This was in Yachting in 1935, where an article gave information on historical maritime terms. 

    • Dead horse. The common sailor was advanced one month's pay at time of signing the articles. This usually went to his boarding-house keeper for alleged debts. During the first month out, he was said to be ‘working off the dead horse’; and at the end of this period it was the make an effigy of a horse and throw it overboard with suitable ceremonies. 

    • I thought this was interesting. Throughout the research, I couldn’t find any references to sailors making horse effigies. 

  • In the Evening Star out of Washington DC in 1937, there is an article titled “Equal Opportunity Urged as New Slogan”

  • Following that article, I could only find use of the entire phrase. We see it in The New Yorker in 1971 which states: 

    • “All this critical analysis would be a flogging of a dead horse.”

    • I think we all feel this way at times… too much critical analysis! 

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Goodreads lists 

  • Guns N Roses Song Dead Horse, Released in 1991

    • Sometimes I feel like I'm beatin' a dead horse

And I don't know why you'd be bringin' me down


***Shauna from the future again. In October 2019 I dragged Dan to a Guns N’ Roses concert and he really enjoyed it. So there. ***


  • Beating a Dead Horse Is More Fun Than You Think: A Partisan's View of the Southland, 1992

    • Renowned author and radio personality Ludlow Porch has once again unflinchingly come to the aid of his fellow countrymen. His new book hails the virtues, hides the vices, refurbishes the myths, and exalts the eccentricities of his beloved Southland.



  • 2014 - Stop Beating the Dead Horse: Why the System of Public Education in the United States Has Failed and What To Do About It - By Julie Casey

    • People like to blame someone for problems. Many people blame the president, Congress, local school boards, administrators, or teachers for the shortfalls of the public school system. The problem is not that the educators and lawmakers aren’t trying to improve the system; it’s that they just haven’t realized the proverbial horse is dead. If the basic system doesn’t work, all the money and strategies and dedication in the world will not help unless the system itself is replaced.


  • Beating A Dead Horse by Jenny Stafford

    • A comedy first performed on stage for the Bloomington Playwright's Project at the Ted Jones Playhouse on September 28, 2017.

Favorite Things About the Phrase

I love this phrase because it is just so very descriptive. Most people can come to what they think it means, but its true meaning rests with its origin... which is equally as weird as the phrase itself. Whenever I hear this idiom, I'm reminded of ridiculousness. It makes me happy to think that we use terms like this. It's just fun. It also reminds me of a really old scifi movie called  The Friend. It's like that TNG episode when Picard gets stuck on the planet with aliens who only speak in phrases. Our understanding is created by our experiences. When we share experiences we build a basis of knowledge and understanding between one another.  



Shauna: That about wraps us up for this week. Thank you for joining us.

Throughout the week you can catch us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook… all @bunnytrailspod. If you have an idiom or phrase you want us to feature, email us at Or you can get links to everything we do by going to

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Thanks again for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

Sources Used: 

Oxford English Dictionary

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