We debunk a lot of eponymic origins on these pages, but this is one in which the usual story is an accurate accounting of the origin of the phrase. A Hobson’s choice is no choice at all, you take what you’re given and you like it. But exactly who was Hobson?
Tobias Hobson (c.1544-1631) was a Cambridge stable manager who let horses. He was quite well known by the intelligentsia of England at the time, operating a coach run between the Bull tavern in London and the university for over sixty years and carrying virtually every Cambridge student and visitor to the university in his coach at one time or another. Milton wrote two epitaphs to Hobson upon his death:
Here lies old Hobson, Death hath broke his girt,
And here alas, hath laid him in the dirt,
Or els the ways being foul, twenty to one,
He’s here stuck in a slough, and overthrown.
Here lieth one who did most truly prove,
That he could never die while he could move.
When hiring a horse, Hobson insisted customers take the horse in the stall closest to the door (the next one up) or take none at all.
The phrase Hobson’s choice appears some thirty years after the stablemaster’s death, in Samuel Fisher’s 1660 Rusticus ad academicos etc. The rustick’s alarm to the Rabbies:
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.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton