What does the idiom "donkey work" mean?

Are you using the idiom donkey work but not sure about its meaning? Using idioms, which are important elements of spoken and written language, in the right place strengthens your language skills. Examine the meaning of the donkey work idiom and the situations in which it is used.

Meaning of "donkey work"


The phrase "donkey work" is an idiomatic expression used to refer to tedious, difficult and unpleasant tasks that must be performed, especially the kind of work that involves a lot of repetitive manual labor. It is often used as an expression of sympathy for someone who has been assigned to do an overwhelming or difficult task.


The term "donkey work" is thought to have originated in the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. It is believed to refer to the manual labor of the animal that was used for a variety of agricultural tasks, such as ploughing, threshing, carrying goods, and transporting people from place to place. The origin of the phrase likely comes from the fact that donkeys are often seen as stoic, hard-working animals that endure difficult tasks without complaint.


The phrase "donkey work" is used to refer to any type of laborious and tedious task. It is often used in a sarcastic or humorous way to refer to a job that requires a lot of hard work and effort, but produces minimal rewards. It is also used in a more sympathetic way, to express sympathy and understanding of the difficulties that someone is facing. It can be used to describe any kind of work, whether it is done by hand or with the help of technology.

Example Sentences

  • I know it's a lot of donkey work, but it has to be done.
  • John's been doing all the donkey work on the project, so he deserves a break.
  • I'm not one for doing donkey work, so I'll have to find a way to delegate it.

The meanings of the words in the "donkey work" idiom

Idioms with similar meaning

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is an English idiom that means you shouldn't make assumptions about someone or something based solely on its appearance. In Japanese, the similar idiom is "Hana yori dango," which translates to "Dumplings rather than flowers." This idiom means that substance is more important than appearance.


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