Vocab Rehab: The Hobson’s Choice

I’ve always loved language, especially simple words and phrases that evoke complex expressions. This is the first of an ongoing series about language that I’m going to call “Vocab Rehab.” The idea is to provide you with a few handy terms that you may not know but could use in the right circumstances.

One expression I love and am intimately familiar with is a “Hobson’s Choice.” In my childhood, my mother – an excellent cook and a nutritionist by training – would provide us with creative and wholesome dinners. We had it better than we knew. On the occasions when my ungrateful brothers and I would whine about her menu, she would smolder for a moment and then announce that we could eat what had she made or…she could make us peanut butter sandwiches.

Never once did we summon the chutzpah to take the second option. As her children, we knew that there was, in reality, no option at all. She would never have made the sandwiches, and we would have been in deep trouble. And that’s a Hobson’s Choice: a free choice in which only one real option is offered. Well played, mother.

Wikipedia, chronicler of all things, has an excellent description of this term, its origins and uses. According to that source, the phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England who, while owning many fine horses, only “offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.” He apparently liked to save his best horses for other uses.

A more modern example: on film, when the nasty antagonist tells his co-conspirator that she can either assist him or depart unharmed, we easily intuit that he’s never giving her the second choice. If she chooses to leave, she’ll be snuffed (and she nearly always is). It’s not only become a rather cliché plot point, it’s also a Hobson’s Choice.