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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.

-Update-

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
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@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
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The ability to arrive at the correct conclusion, even given incorrect assumptions, is interesting in itself. –  Andy F May 7 '11 at 9:55
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@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
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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

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

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

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

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961) has this entry for flog:

flog. To whip: from ca. 1670. Until ca. 1750, c[ant]; in C19–20, S[tandard] E[nglish]. [Elijah] Coles, [Dictionary] 1676. Prob. an echoic perversion of L. flagellare.—2. To beat, excel: ca. 1840–1910.—3. In late C. 19–20 military, to sell illicitly, esp. Army stores; and in post G.W. c., to sell 'swag' to others than receivers. F[raser] & Gibbons [Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (1925)]; B. & P. Ex flog the clock ["move its hands forward"] or flog the glass ["turn the watch-glass"]. [Cross reference omitted.] —4. Hence, to get the better of (a person) esp. in a bargain: military: 1915. F[raser] & Gibbons.—5. Hence (?), to exchange or barter: from ca. 1920. Anon. Dartmoor from Within, 1932.—6. See flog it [the entry for which reads "To walk: military: from ca. 1912. F[raser] & Gibbons. Ex the effort {flog oneself along}."—7. (Ex [sense] 3.) 'To offer for sale (especially when financially embarrassed ...),' H[unt] & P[ringle, Service Slang (1943)]: Services, since ca. 1935.—8. To borrow without permission: Services: since ca. 1937 H[unt] & P[ringle]. (Cf. sense 3.)

Partridge does not persuasively explain how English made the jump from flog sense 2 ("To beat, excel") to flog sense 3 ("to sell illicitly")—unless you find his deriving the usage from "flog the clock" and "flog the glass" persuasive. But Partridge seems quite confident that sense 3 emerged in the late nineteenth century and had a military origin; and the emergence (in the services) of flog in the sense of "to offer for sale [under financial pressure]" suggests some underlying institutional memory of flogging in the sense of selling illicitly, from several decades earlier.

John Ayto & John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) has a much shorter entry for flog:

flog verb 1 trans Brit. orig military To sell. 1919–. M Drabble Let's go ... and look at the ghastly thing that Martin flogged us. (1967). 2 intr. and refl To proceed by violent or painful effort. 1925–. Times [Lorry drivers] are being encouraged to 'flog on' even in bad weather (1964).

Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990) sems to confirm Partridge's earlier genealogy of the term:

flog vb to sell. A common colloquialism in Britain which would still be cosidered slang by some speakers. The word originally referred to selling off military stores illicitly and is said to derive from a 19th-century expression to 'flog the clock', meaning to put the clock forward to shorten the working day, later extended to other devious behaviour.

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I think everyone on this thread is flogging the wrong horse. In the same way that a fool may be referred to as a wanker (masturbator), he may be described as a flog, which is another term for the same self-pleasuring.

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Actually, Eric Partridge does have an entry for that particular meaning, under the heading flog one's donkey: "flog one's donkey. (Of a male) to masturbate: low (? orig. Cockney): late C. 19–20. Also flog one's mutton — a variant of jerk ... Also flog the bishop." But if Partridge is right that this sense of flog arose not earlier than the late nineteenth century, it's about 200 years too late to claim to be the source of flog in English—quite aside from the fact that the donkey, mutton, or bishop is being cruelly treated as if by flogging in each instance. –  Sven Yargs Aug 14 at 23:52

This use of to flog sth in the sense of to sell sth cheap to get rid of it reminds me of German verkloppen (North German). But the consonants are in different order. German has klp, English has fkg. If we assume that f belongs to the series p b f v and g to k g ... h we have the same consonants in different order.

I have found quite a number of such words, about 250, with the same meaning and corresponding consonants where the arrangement of the consonant is different.

So I may assume that to flog and kloppen (in verkloppen) belong together. Such things are not according to Grimm's findings, but they exist nevertheless.

Just one example: to slump corresponds to German plumpsen.

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