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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, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 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. May 9, 2011 at 5:45

7 Answers 7

9

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, 2014 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, 2014 at 16:24
  • this is a good guess, but several words in the semantic field around "beating" may mean "to offer, to sell". I cannot think of one specifically, and I don't see reliable cognates for to flog that would inform the opinion. *pleHg- "to beat, strike" might suggest a relation to Plakat "poster", plaquette, in line with my first guess for an analogy with Ger. anschlag (what Luther did with his letters, making a public proclamation) but it contradicts the illicitness. Umschlag-platz literally means "market", umschlagen also "to flip, flick". No real relation to whipping in that case.
    – vectory
    Mar 29, 2020 at 12:08
5

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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  • It seems quite a natural movement from literally "beat" meaning to hit or defeat in a fight, to senses meaning to get one over on someone, trick them, con them, sell at an exaggerated price, etc. The verb "thrash" has gone from literal beating to refer to a clear defeat at sports or in other contests. "rip off" went from a verb meaning literally to tear or cut something off, to refer to selling at an excessive price - the OED says it went through an intermediate meaning of "to steal", so it has had a somewhat similar shift of meaning.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 26, 2020 at 14:58
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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'. May 11, 2011 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, 2011 at 11:04
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Without much evidence, I suggest that to flog = to whip = to urge along (as in the "dead horse" analogy). And thus the man flogging the iffy goods, was urging along the sale of the iffy goods: he was encouraging the sale of his own items.

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For what it's worth, here is another "business" word relating to informal sales:

verb swaps, swapping, swapped [with object]

1 Take part in an exchange of. ‘We swapped phone numbers’

1.1 Give (one thing) and receive something else in exchange. ‘Swap one of your sandwiches for a cheese and pickle?’

1.2 Substitute (one thing) for another. ‘I swapped my busy life in London for a peaceful village retreat’ (LEXICO)

It previously meant "to strike", which is its only other relation to "flog":

swap (v.) c. 1200, "to strike, strike the hands together," of uncertain origin, possibly imitative of the sound of hitting or slapping. The sense of "to exchange, barter, trade" is first recorded 1590s, possibly from the notion of slapping hands together as a sign of agreement in bargaining (as in strike a bargain). Related: Swapped; swapping. The noun in this sense is attested from 1620s; earlier "a striking, an act of striking" (mid-13c.). Swap-meet attested from 1968, American English. (etymonline)

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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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  • plumpsen is plummet. plump is ... plump?
    – vectory
    Mar 29, 2020 at 12:11
-1

2019 - the word flog has made it into Australian slang - quoting the Age newspaper article by Matilda Boseley from June 8, 2019: A Carlton supporter has been evicted from Marvel Stadium during Saturday's Blues vs Lions game for reportedly shouting abuse at an AFL umpire. 3AW has reported that the man was evicted from the stadium during half-time for calling umpire Mathew Nicholls a "bald-headed flog", as he ran off the field.

The term has been attached to a particular player of AFL named Adam Goodes and some claim it is a disguised way of racially vilifying him, others claim the word has been used well before the word [meme] became associated with Goodes and has been used in many sporting situations to more politely describe a person who is considered a "wanker" or a "shit bloke" both terms that are common in Australian language as this article from Buzz feed explains

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  • Interesting, but the question is about the use of the word ‘‘flog’’ as a verb.
    – Scott
    Jun 11, 2019 at 6:39

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