Flogging a dead horse
An author’s dream is to submit a proposal to a publisher and secure an enormous advance ahead of writing the opus. Some hopes. For the publisher, of course, it is a bit of a double-edged sword. The work may not be produced or may be a clunker. In the 17th century to receive a payment in advance for some work to be performed was known as making a dead horse. The Nicker Nicked or the Cheats of Gaming Discovered, published in 1668, contains the sentence, “his land ‘twas sold to pay his debts; all went that way, for a dead horse, as one would say”.
We can draw a couple of conclusions from this usage. Firstly, the phrase dead horse was in common currency by then or, at least, would be sufficiently familiar to the reader to be used without an explanatory gloss. The second inference is that by being used to pay off outstanding debts, the money was not put to any productive use. In other words, it was a futile use of resources. And it does seem that the dead horse as an advance was prone to be spent on wine, women and song or settling off debts. Perhaps the publisher’s fears about providing an advance seem well founded.
In Old England and New Zealand, published in 1879, Alfred Simmons described a ceremony performed by the ship’s crew called Flogging the Dead Horse. There was a shanty which accompanied the rites which included the lines “We’ll hoist him up to the main yard-arm” and “and drop him down to the depths of the sea.” The crews of ships were paid their first month’s wages in advance and, inevitably, most if not all of it was spent before they left port. To celebrate the end of the first month when they would actually start earning again, they performed an elaborate ceremony which involved hoisting an effigy of a horse up to the yardarm to the accompaniment of the shanty. The youngest member of the crew would sit on the yardarm and when the horse reached him, he cut the rope sending the horse into the drink.
Our phrase, flogging a dead horse, is used to indicate that any further action would be futile. The act of flogging a horse that is dead has no benefit – the horse’s behaviour will not improve, all the flogger may have a momentary sense of satisfaction. In its figurative sense the phrase appeared in the mid 19th century. On 28th March 1859 in the House of Commons Lord Elcho said of John Bright that he had not been “satisfied with the results of his winter campaign” and that “a saying was attributed to him that he found he was flogging a dead horse”. This attribution is earlier than the first instance recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary which is as late as 1872, from The Globe, “rehearsed that ..lively operation known as flogging a dead horse”.
An alternative and more ancient phrase for describing a futile task is to slay the slain. This appeared in John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast “what prowess is it to slay the slain anew” but its origin is Roman, at least. Libanius who had a bit of a downer on the Emperor Julian, said in his funeral oration, “so all who knew the fellow were sorry that it was not possible to slay the slain, and to do so thrice over, and yet oftener”.
So now we know! I just hope I haven’t been wasting my time!