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The meaning and origin of the expression: Donkey work

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.

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 the English newspaper The Western Times, February 1849:

You might easily imagine a dialogue going on between the horse and his keepers - the noble animal protesting all the while that he would not do donkey work and demean himself like an ass.

This citation, in common with many of the early examples found in print, alludes to 'donkey's work' being menial and dull and it is this meaning, rather than the 'hard labour' meaning now understood that was is use when the expression was first coined.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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