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Mind your language

Mind your language: Hobson’s choice

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

An Iranian on the wireless was complaining that disqualification of presidential candidates had left voters with ‘Hobson’s choice’. No doubt this idiom was learnt from a careful teacher, but I wondered how many English people would use it or even know its meaning.

All Spectator readers do, of course. In the original Spectator for 10 October 1712, Richard Steele told how ‘Tobias Hobson’ a carrier of Cambridge, hired out horses but obliged each customer ‘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’. So Hobson’s choice came to mean ‘this or nothing’.

Steele was careless to call Hobson (1545–1631) ‘Tobias’, for his name was Thomas. Hobson’s choice naturally found a place in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, a book that tells us what people thought was the case, rather than accurate facts. He retails the name Tobias.

Milton at the age of 22 wrote two joky epitaphs upon Hobson, as other undergraduates in Cambridge were doing in 1631. The second is, I think, better, with its conceit that Hobson ‘died of heaviness [sadness] that his cart went light’, and ‘lack of load made his life burdensome’, and so ‘even to his last breath (there be that say’t) / As he were pressed to death, he cried: More weight.’ A jest about being pressed to death is just the sort of hard humour we might expect from Milton.

The phrase Hobson’s choice was still regarded as an asset for the name of a play when Harold Brighouse used it in 1915. When it was turned into a film by David Lean (Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills) in 1954, Brighouse was still alive. The play was revived in Sheffield in 2011, but I didn’t see it.

A list of such (moribund) proverbial idioms would surely include: The case is altered, quoth Plowden (of which Brewer gave a nonsensical explanation). Its link with Edmund Plowden (1518–85) was noted in the old DNB but excised from the new ODNB. Even if not historical, it should have been discussed in the entry, if only for the benefit of Iranian students.

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