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The meaning and origin of the expression: Donkey work

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Donkey work

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Donkey work'?

Hard work; the least attractive part of any project.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Donkey work'?

Donkey workThe expression 'donkey work' came about as an allusion to the heavy loads that donkeys are often required to carry.

'Donkey work' began to be used in a figurative sense, that is, a usage where no actual donkeys were referred to, in England in the mid 19th century.

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Only fools or horses work? Let's hear it for the donkey.
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Of all domesticated and farmed animals it is donkeys and mules who most frequently face a life of relentless toil.

A notion that the expression derived as a reference to the laborious cleaning of front steps that was de rigeur in working class homes in the North of England until the 1960s is based on the fact that the cleaning agent used for scrubbing was called a donkey stone. This theory isn't correct. The conjunction of the Donkey Stone trade name and the menial labour they were used for is pure coincidence.

The earliest citation of 'donkey work' that I have found in print comes from a magazine that published melodramatic stories - the pulp fiction of its day, The Penny Illustrated Paper. A February 1866 edition included a story called The Nabob's Revenge, which included this text:

And he even carried his grateful sense of what had occurred so far as repeatedly to beg of Dove not to work herself to death, but to take her ease, and let the other "little, lazy beasts" do the donkey-work for her.

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