an instrument for threshing grain, consisting of a staff or handle to one end of which is attached a freely swinging stick or bar.
a similar instrument used as a weapon of war.
verb (used with object), verb (used without object)
to beat or swing with or as if with a flail.

before 1100; Middle English fleil (noun), Old English flighel (probably misspelling of *flegil), cognate with Dutch vlegel, German Flegel < West Germanic *flagil- < Late Latin flagellum flail, Latin: whip, scourge. See flagellum

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Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
flail (fleɪl)
1.  an implement used for threshing grain, consisting of a wooden handle with a free-swinging metal or wooden bar attached to it
2.  a weapon so shaped used in the Middle Ages
3.  (tr) to beat or thrash with or as if with a flail
4.  to move or be moved like a flail; thresh about: with arms flailing
[C12 fleil, ultimately from Late Latin flagellum flail, from Latin: whip]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
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Word Origin & History

"implement for threshing grain," c.1100, from an unrecorded O.E. *flegel, which probably represents W.Gmc. *flagil (cf. M.Du., Low Ger. vlegel, O.H.G. flegel, Ger. flegel), a borrowing of L.L. flagellum "winnowing tool, flail," from L. flagellum "whip." The verb is 15c., from the noun; originally "to
scourge;" sense of "to move like a flail" is from 1874. Related: Flailed; flailing.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Medical Dictionary

flail (flāl)
v. flailed, flail·ing, flails

  1. To move vigorously or erratically; thrash about.

  2. To strike or lash out violently.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Encyclopedia Britannica


ancient hand tool for threshing grain. It consists of two pieces of wood: the handstaff, or helve, and the beater, joined by a thong. The handstaff is a light rod several feet long, the beater a shorter piece. With a flail, one man could thresh 7 bushels of wheat, 8 of rye, 15 of barley, 18 of oats, or 20 of buckwheat in a day (one bushel equals about 35 litres). The flail remained the principal method of threshing until the mid-19th century, when mechanical threshers became widespread (see thresher).

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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
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Example sentences
Another third would flail and swallow some water, but somehow they'd make it to
  the water's edge.
On the road to the main cemetery, rain-soaked policemen flail their batons at
  delivery trucks co-opted as hearses.
They didn't see her trip on a branch and flail endlessly to get on her feet.
Crocodiles position themselves nearby, picking off the animals as they flail in
  the water.
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