Hobson’s choice

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hobson's choice'?

‘Hobson’s choice’ is no real choice at all.

When the only options are either accept what is offered or refuse it, we have ‘Hobson’s choice’. The expression is effectively the same as ‘take it or leave it’.

The expression is best known in the UK, but became used worldwide following the successful eponymous 1954 film starring Charles Laughton.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hobson's choice'?

It is widely believed that ‘Hobson’s choice’ derives from the English Tudor businessman Thomas Hobson.

He hired out horses and gave his customers no choice as to which horse they could take.

This derivation has all the credentials of a ‘folk etymology‘ myth, and it may be a myth, or, it may be true – read on…

Firstly. let’s just get ‘Hobbesian choice’ out of the way. The confusion between that phrase and ‘Hobson’s choice’, originate from a confusion between the celebrated philosopher Thomas Hobbes (who, incidentally, was the originator of another commonplace phrase – ‘nasty, brutish and short‘) and Thomas Hobson. The two expressions are unrelated.

So, let’s get on with ‘Hobson’s choice’. There are two theories as to the origin of this term. One is that is derives from Thomas Hobson, as is popularly thought; the other is that it pre-dates Hobson.

Thomas Hobson (1545–1631) ran a thriving carrier and horse rental business in Cambridge, England around the turn of the 17th century. He rented out horses, mainly to Cambridge University students, but insisted that the students took the horse nearest the stable door. The choice his customers were given was ‘this or none’; quite literally, not their choice but Hobson’s choice.

The phrase was already being described as proverbial less than thirty years after Hobson’s death. The Quaker scholar Samuel Fisher referred to the phrase in his religious text, The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies, 1660:

“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.”

In October 1712 The Spectator published a letter from a certain Hezekiah Thrift explaining how the phrase came into being:

“Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the Expression, was a very honourable Man…

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 to his Chance…

From whence it became a Proverb – Hobson’s Choice

This memorable Man stands drawn in Fresco at an Inn (which he used) in Bishopsgate-street, with an hundred Pound Bag under his Arm, with this Inscription upon the said Bag”

On the face of it the connection between Thomas Hobson and ‘Hobson’s choice’ seems clear.

However, being believed by Mr. Thrift in 1712, 80 years after Hobson’s death, doesn’t make a story true. Those who suggest that the phrase pre-dates Hobson point to similar 17th century expressions which may be unconnected with Hobson.

In a letter home from Yedo, Japan in May 1614, the English traveller Richard Wickham wrote:

I would put him to Hudsons choice.

Also, in an October 1617 letter from Richard Cox, the head of the British East India Company in Japan:

Once we are put to Hodgsons choise to take such privilegese as they will geve us, or else goe without.
[Note: The head of the BEIC spelled his name ending ‘ocks’. I’ve altered the spelling here as Google clamps down on words it sees as offensive and may take offending page sout of its search results.]

In 1883 Edward Thompson published Richard Cox’ diary. In Volume II he makes a case against ‘Hobson’s choice’ being connected to Thomas Hobson:

Hobson was born in 1544 and died in 1630. Granting that the expression arose during his life-time, it could hardly have begun to pass into common usage before the close of the sixteenth century; and in those days such popular phrases were not communicated so fast as in ours. But here we find Cox using it as early as 1617, after an absence of some years from England; and he would hardly have picked it up abroad. Again, Cox was not a young man; and, as a rule, proverbs are learned and become part of our vocabulary in youth. 

“Hobson’s choice” (or Hodgson’s, as Cox writes it) may very well have been an older popular saying which was applied to the Cambridge carrier’s stable arrangements from the mere accident of his bearing the name he did.

So, we have two antique opinions, for and against the Thomas Hobson derivation, neither from authors with any credentials in etymology.

Looking at Hezekiah Thrift’s contribution, he does no more than repeat the popular belief.

Edward Thompson’s argument is based on the assertion that, if ‘Hobson’s choice’ related to Thomas Hobson, there wouldn’t have been sufficient time for it to have reached Richard Cox’s ears before he left England (which was in 1613). I find that argument unconvincing. Hobson was born in 1545 and I can see no reason that the phrase wouldn’t have been widely circulated by 1613.

Back-formations are explanations of the origins of phrases that are applied after the event because they seem plausible. For instance, it is believed that lavatories were called ‘crappers’ after Thomas Crapper the Victorian sanitary engineer. This explanation was back-formed because the man’s name and the toilet’s name matched. In fact, that was just a coincidence and a similar coincidence may have happened with Hobson.

It is possible that the story of Thomas Hobson’s trading method was matched to a previously known phrase but, if that’s the case, why are there no citations of ‘Hobson’s (or Hudson’s or Hodgson’s) choice’ dating from before Hobson went into business? What we lack is the smoking gun of a use of ‘Hobson’s choice’ before Thomas Hobson.

All in all, there seems no strong reason to disbelieve what most people prefer to believe, which is that ‘Hobson’s choice’ derives from Thomas Hobson.

The phrase was still well enough known in the 20th century for ‘hobsons’ to be adopted then as Cockney rhyming slang for ‘voice’. It has no connection with the similar sounding ‘Hobson-Jobson’, which derived as a corruption by British soldiers in India of the Arabic street cry ‘Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥusayn!’ = ‘O Hasan! O Husain!” (Hasan and Husain were grandsons of Muhammad).

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 you like, so long as it’s black‘.

See also: Buggins’ turn.

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.