Hobson's Choice

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Hobson's Choice : Phrases


No choice at all - the only option being the one that is offered to you.



There is a story that this comes from a Mr. Hobson who rented out horses and gave his customers no choice as to their mount. This has all the credentials of a 'folk etymology' myth. In this case however, the derivation is correct.

Thomas Hobson (1545–1631), was a real historical figure and he ran a thriving carrier and horse rental business in Cambridge, England, around the turn of the 17th century. Hobson rented horses mainly to Cambridge University students but refused to rent them out other than in their correct order. The choice his customers were given was 'this or none', i.e. Hobson's choice.

The phrase was already being described as proverbial less than thirty years after Hobson's death. Samuel Fisher's, The rustick's alarm to the Rabbies 1660, includes this:

"If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson's choice ... which is, chuse whether you will have this or none."

The Spectator, No. 509, from 1712, explains how Hobson did business, which shows clearly how the phrase came into being:

"He lived in Cambridge, and observing that the Scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large Stable of Horses, ... 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."

After his death in 1631 he was remembered in verse by no less a figure than John Milton, saying "He had bin an immortall Carrier". That seems rather a strange thing to say just after he had died. Eighty six was a very good innings in the 17th century, but hardly immortality.

The phrase was still well enough known in the 20th century for hobsons to be adopted then as Cockney rhyming slang for voice.

The most celebrated application of Hobson's choice in the 20th century was Henry Ford's offer of the Model-T Ford in 'any colour so long as it's black'.

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