You can beat a dead horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

This is another in a series of “Maraphors”, a punny term coined by Ray Johnston describing malaphors involving horses, which it turns out is quite a few (type in horse in the search field on the website and you will see).  This nice mash up of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”  (even favorable circumstances won’t force someone to do something one doesn’t want to) and “beating a dead horse” (a particular request is already resolved and any attempt to continue is futile) was uttered by mistake by malaphor follower azrielle.  Thanks Azrielle for passing this one along!

Regarding the expression “beating a dead horse”, the first recorded use with its modern meaning is by British politician and orator John Bright, referring to the Reform Act of 1867, which called for more democratic representation in Parliament, an issue about which Parliament was singularly apathetic. Trying to rouse Parliament from its apathy on the issue, he said in a speech, would be like trying to flog a dead horse to make it pull a load.

beating a dead horse


Not to beat this horse into the ground, but….

This gem was heard on a podcast by one of my favorite contributors, Marcia Riefer Johnston.  This is a mash up of “beat a dead horse” (to waste time doing something that has already been attempted) and “run into the ground” (use something so much that it does not work anymore).  Both expressions deal with the idea of overusing something which was the speaker’s point.  Marcia believes the speaker was mushing the idioms together to avoid an out-and-out cliché.  I think that often happens.
By the way, horses seem to be a popular subject for malaphors.  For example, I have posted recently “don’t look a gift horse in the can” and “you can’t beat that with a dead horse”.  Others include “I’m cursing like a race horse”, “that’s a horse of a different story”, “he’s a black horse in all of this”, and “I don’t want to reinvent the horse”.  When I told Marcia this, she replied that her husband suggested they be called “maraphors”.  I think that is an excellent idea and will add it as a specific category to the website!   Thanks to Ray Johnston for the punny suggestion and for Marcia Johnston for sending this maraphor in!
If you liked this one you’ll LOVE the malaphor book just published:  “He Smokes Like a Fish and other Malaphors”, available on Amazon in the US at, Canada at, and the UK at
beat horse

You can’t beat that with a dead horse

Conference calls are goldmines for malaphors.  This amusing ditty was heard on a conference call and Greg, a faithful malaphor follower, spotted it immediately.  I’m not sure what “that” is, but it more than likely can’t be beaten with a dead horse.  This is a mash up of “beat a dead horse” (waste time doing something that has already been attempted), “can’t beat (or top) that” (no one can do better than that) and the extension of the latter, “you can’t beat that with a stick” (no one can do better than that).   A stick might be used to prod a horse so the speaker might have had a vision of using a stick to flog or beat a dead horse.

dead horse

Not to beat a broken record, but….

This is a conflation of “beat a dead horse” and “sound like a broken record’, both meaning to do or say the same thing over and over again.  The best malaphors are the ones mixing similar meaning phrases, and this is a good example.  Kudos to Kevin Hatfield for uttering this unintentional masterpiece, and to Justin Taylor for recognizing it.

I don’t want to reinvent the horse

This malaphor is a mash up of “reinvent the wheel” (make unnecessary preparations) and  “beat a dead horse” (waste time trying to do something that will not succeed), both involving wasted time.   A big shout out to Cecily for providing this beauty.