Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue – Day 156

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the current health crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored….

Hobson’s Choice

This phrase is defined by the dictionary as “that or none; from old Hobson, a famous carrier of Cambridge, who used to let horses to the students; but never permitted them to chuse [sic], always allotting each man the horse he thought properest for his manner of riding and treatment”.

The phrase is in common usage still today and I had thought when reading this dictionary that the origin was likely apocryphal, but it does seem to be true. It’s named after Thomas Hobson (1544–1631) who ran stables in Cambridge, owning 40 different horses. Some horses he used for the mail run between Cambridge and London, but he also lent them out to students and academics. Hobson wasn’t being awkward, but he wanted the choice of horse to be random so that people didn’t just keep picking the best horse and then wearing that one out. All very sound thinking.

The phrase came into more common usage following Hobson’s death and now just means that you’re getting what you’ve given, there’s no choice to be had.