Thomas Hobson (1629), by an unknown artist – image: National Portrait Gallery
the option of taking the one thing offered or nothing
The earliest use of the phrase (in its present form, if the original spelling was preserved) that I could find dates back to 1649. That year, the earl of Pembroke was chosen knight of the shire for Berks and admitted to the House of Commons. In the speech he delivered before the House, he said:
I was born a knight, and now I am chosen a knight. Why should we be not twice knights as well as twice children? The presbyterian parliament made me a knight errant; I was then a knight of all shires. I think they were the great levellers; for they brought me down to be a spaniel, or pack-horse: they could find no use for me but to fetch and carry. I had Hobson’s choice, either be a Hobson or nothing. I was then a plain ordinary post; but I thank God you have made me a knight o’ th’ post.
(from A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts (1812), by Walter Scott)
The phrase was then used by the anonymous author of A word to purpose: or, A Parthian dart, shot back to 1642, and from thence shot back again to 1659, published in 1659:
But is it not meant a Free State, that every one shall be free to do that which is good in his own eyes, or that every one shall be free to do what he hath power enough to do, or that every one shall be free in Hobson’s choise, to take, enjoy, or have what the Army will suffer us to take, enjoy, or have, or nothing? or Free in paying the Souldiers, or Free to doe what the Army would have us.
It is generally said that the phrase originally referred to Thomas Hobson (circa 1544-1631), a successful Cambridge businessman who ran a mail service and livery stable transporting goods and passengers. He became rich hiring out horses to people travelling to London.
The expression Hobson’s choice is said to have originated as a sarcastic reference to Hobson’s insistence that anyone hiring a horse must “choose” the one closest to the stable door or none at all. However, this explanation was only given for the first time more than 80 years after Thomas Hobson’s death: The Spectator (n° 509) of Tuesday 14th October 1712 published the following letter written by “Hezekiah Thrift”:
I shall conclude this Discourse with an Explanation of a Proverb, which by vulgar Error is taken and used when a Man is reduced to an Extremity, whereas the Propriety of the Maxim is to use it when you would say, there is Plenty, but you must make such a Choice, as not to hurt another who is to come after you.
Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the Expression, was a very honourable Man, for I shall ever call the Man so who gets an Estate honestly. Mr. Tobias Hobson was a Carrier, and being a Man of great Abilities and Invention, and one that saw where there might good Profit arise, though the duller Men overlooked it; this ingenious Man was the first in this Island who let out Hackney-Horses. He lived in Cambridge, and observing that the Scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large Stable of Horses, with Boots, Bridles, and Whips to furnish the Gentlemen at once, without going from College to College to borrow, as they have done since the Death of this worthy Man: I say, Mr. Hobson kept a Stable of forty good Cattle, always ready and fit for travelling; but 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, and every Horse ridden with the same Justice: From whence it became a Proverb, when what ought to be your Election was forced upon you, to say, 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,
“The fruitful Mother of an Hundred more.”
But the phrase had already been used in various forms, many years before Hobson’s death, by merchant venturers living in Japan. Writing from Yedo on 25th May 1614, Richard Wickham (died 1618) says:
I would put him to Hudsons choice.
And in a letter dated 7th April 1616, he repeats the phrase:
I gave him good words, and leave him to Hudsons choyce.
In a letter to William Nealson and John Osterwick, Richard Cocks (1566-1624) wrote, from “Fushamy” (i.e. Fushimi), on 1st October 1617:
Once we are put to Hodgsons choise to take such privilegese as they will geve us, or else goe without.
In his edition of the diary of Richard Cocks (1883), Edward Maunde Thompson wrote:
This early use of the proverbial “Hobson’s choice” is almost conclusive against the usual explanation of the phrase, that it was derived from the method adopted by Hobson, the Cambridge carrier, in serving his customers with horses. Hobson was born in 1544 and died in 1630 [sic]. 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 Cocks using it as early as 1617, after an absence of some years from England; and he would hardly have picked it up abroad. Again, Cocks 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 Cocks 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.
In The Athenæum: Journal of literature, science, the fine arts, music, and the drama (London) of 24th May 1902, a certain William Foster, from the India Office, Westminster, who found the two uses of the phrase by Richard Wickham, wrote, about these and the use of it by Richard Cocks:
The three taken together seem to prove (1) that the phrase was older than Hobson’s time; (2) that the original form of the name was Hodgson, Hodson, or Hudson. In all probability some Cambridge wit adapted a well-known saying to fit the masterful methods of the University carrier, and thus gave the phrase a twist from which it never recovered.
Of course, this leaves the origin of the saying a mystery still.