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I've searched multiple dictionaries and Etymonline but the only origin for "flog" that I can find is:

1670s, slang, perhaps a schoolboy shortening of L. flagellare "flagellate."

This clearly relates to its proper meaning, to whip or beat.

However, in (British, and perhaps other) slang, the verb "to flog" has come to mean "to sell" with an implication being that something being flogged is being sold quickly or cheaply.

The meaning is confirmed in several dictionaries, but I am at a loss as to why the meaning has arisen. And so I turn to you.


I've not managed to find any further links between flogging and selling, which has led me to consider this possibility: Is it possible that the two meanings are unrelated? I had made the assumption that the "selling" variant was somehow derived from the same word which means "to whip or beat", but perhaps it's not.

Judging by the demographic from which the word appears to come from (first referenced by authors from around London), and given that its original meaning implied the illicit sale of goods, perhaps "to flog something" (in the sense of selling it) is a form of contrived rhyming slang.

Could anyone back this up?

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It's worth pointing out that this question came up because a friend of mine questioned the meaning of "Flogging a dead horse". Another friend replied: "Well imagine a guy who sells horses... he can't sell a dead one, can he? It's a pointless exercise." –  Andy F May 7 '11 at 7:55
@Andy F: I always thought that particular phrase referred to the whip meaning - i.e. once your horse is dead, it's not going to run anywhere for you any more, no matter how hard you whip it :) –  psmears May 7 '11 at 9:45
The ability to arrive at the correct conclusion, even given incorrect assumptions, is interesting in itself. –  Andy F May 7 '11 at 9:55
@Alain: Interesting - do you have a source for that? The wikipedia page about the phrase gives quotes implying it's about making the horse pull a load, rather than to sell it... –  psmears May 7 '11 at 18:59
In Australia "flog" has developed a further slang sense "to steal". In my experience the younger people using the "steal" sense are unaware of the "sell" sense. –  hippietrail May 9 '11 at 5:45

2 Answers 2

The OED says

c. slang (orig. Mil.). To sell or offer for sale, orig. illicitly.

with examples from 1919; but it doesn't give a reason for that meaning.

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I wouldn't want to get too bogged down in the somewhat surreal discussions in comments under OP, but fairly obviously the original flogging of a dead horse relates to the fact that if it's already been flogged to death, you won't win the race by flogging it any more. I easily found the original phrase as early as 1864, so maybe the later slang usage was a jokey reference to that. In a context where what they were doing was selling dead ex-military horses 'under the counter'. –  FumbleFingers May 11 '11 at 23:29
I agree that "flogging a dead horse" probably did refer to whipping it rather than selling it, and am somewhat bemused that anybody thinks otherwise. Your suggestion that the meaning arose via that alternative meaning is neat, but I am not convinced. –  Colin Fine May 12 '11 at 11:04

When you flog a horse you make it go faster. So to flog goods is to make them move faster.

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Hence a seller who flogs their goods is pushing for a fast sell. Good observation! Add more detail and this answer could become stellar :) –  Mari-Lou A Oct 30 '14 at 9:13
This is such a cool explanation and once it's been pointed out, so bloody obvious. They are trying to flog their house. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 30 '14 at 16:24

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