Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hobson's choice

This was just something that came up yesterday evening at our Finnegans Wake reading group. We came across the sentence "I've a hopesome's choice if I chouse of all the sinkts in the colandar." (page 432 at the bottom). Yes, the whole book goes on like that but don't worry, I'm not going to try and dissect it here. We seized "hopesome's choice" out of the stew and started talking about Hobson's choice and what it might mean here. We all had our own impressions of what Hobson's choice was and who Hobson might be, and we were all more or less wrong.

Our vague impression was that Hobson's choice meant having to choose between two or more bad options. I personally had the idea that Hobson might be a lesser known philosopher, probably because of the echoes of Hobbes in the name. (Turns out I'm not the only one.)

But no. Thomas Hobson wasn't Thomas Hobbes. He was a livery stable owner living near Cambridge (his lifespan from 1544-1631). Here are the famous editors of the Spectator, Addison and Steele, writing about him after his death:

Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the expression, was a very honourable man, for I shall ever call the man so who gets an estate honestly. Mr. Tobias Hobson was a carrier; and, being a man of great abilities and invention, and one that saw where there might good profit arise, though the duller men overlooked it, this ingenious man was the first in this island who let out hackney-horses. He lived in Cambridge; and, observing that the scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large stable of horses, with boots, bridles and whips, to furnish the gentlemen at once, without going from college to college to borrow, as they have done since the death of this worthy man.
I say, Mr. Hobson kept a stable of forty good cattle, always ready and fit for travelling; but, when a man came for a horse he was led into the stable, where there was great choice, but he obliged him to take the horse which stood next to the stable-door; so that every customer was alike well served according to his chance, and every horse ridden with the same justice: from whence it became a proverb, when what ought to be your election was forced upon you, to say Hobson's choice. This memorable man stands drawn in fresco at an inn he used in Bishopsgate-street, with an hundred pound bag under his arm, with this inscription upon the said bag:

"The fruitful mother of an hundred more."
Whatever tradesman will try the experiment, and begin the day after you publish this my discourse to treat his customers all alike, and all reasonably and honestly, I will ensure him the same success.
—"Hezekiah Thrift", The Spectator, 10 October 1712
So, though the term Hobson's choice has come down to us, when used correctly, as meaning a choice between one thing and nothing at all (i.e., "my way or the highway", "take it or leave it", "an offer you can't refuse"), in fact, Hobson had merely devised a system that was fair to his horses, his customers and, well, everybody.

As Wikipedia tells us, Hobson is remembered as a kind of miser for this practice. It's worth knowing, then, that he helped fund Hobson's Conduit, which brought fresh drinking water to Cambridge from springs at Nine Wells. He was only one of its supporters, but he endowed a trust for the conduit's maintenance. The conduit still exists today. So does this monument erected to him.

There was a play written in 1915 with Hobson's Choice as the title, which subsequently was turned into several movies, including one in 1954 directed by David Lean and starring Charles Laughton. The description sounds like King Lear, without the tragic downside.

But I think my favorite way that "Hobson's choice" has gone further into the language is that, according to Phrasefinder, cockney rhyming slang uses "Hobson's choice" as the slang for voice.

Often it's shortened to just "Hobson's."


  1. I like the horse rotation system. It reminds me of our high school math teacher who rotated his neckties to the extent that bright students could create a Predict-a-Tie chart.

  2. I like it too. It's very fair, whatever those Cambridge students may have thought.

  3. I have a feeling this is misused frequently. That may be because I'm not sure precisely what it means.

  4. I think it is. But now that I've looked into it, it seems pretty simple. In the original context, it just meant, "It's not your choice--it's Hobson's." And in modern parlance, Hobson could stand in for anything that has precedence over you when it comes to choosing.

    1. Thanks. Its meaning is now planted firmly in my mind.

    2. Well, that's more than I can say, Peter.

  5. Well, now, that is interesting stuff! Any day that I am still breathing and have the bonus of learning something new is a great day. So, thanks for adding to my successful day.

  6. Oops! I should also have mentioned this: I have just launched a new crime fiction blog, and I hope you will help me get it off the ground by visiting and answering the inaugural question. Thanks!