‘hobby’, originally a diminutive of ‘Hob’, pet form of ‘Robert’

‘Hobby’, originally a diminutive of ‘Hob’, pet form of ‘Robert’, was used to denote a small horse, hence a child’s toy with a horse’s head, later a favourite occupation—cf. French ‘dada’, child’s word for horse, used to denote a favourite pastime (cf. also ‘violon d’Ingres’ and ‘dada’).




According to one theory, the noun hobby, in its original sense of a small horse or pony, is from the French noun of same meaning formerly spelt hobin, obin, etc., now aubin. This theory says that this noun is from the French verb hober, to move, derived from the verb hobeler, to harry, from Middle Dutch hob(b)elen, to turn, to move, based on an assumed Germanic verb hubbon, huppon, to which German hüpfen, to hop, is related.

But in view of the dates of the first English and French attestations, it is more likely that French hobin was borrowed from English (in turn, Italian borrowed the French word as ubino). In all probability, hobyn and hoby, the forms in which the English noun hobby appeared, are Hobin and Hobby, diminutives of Hob, pet form of the given name Robert (they correspond therefore to Robin and Robby.)

Similarly, the proper name Dobbin, diminutive of Dob, pet form of Robert, came to be a generic name for an ordinary draught or farm horse.

Likewise, the ass has been called neddy, from Ned, pet form of Edward, and dicky, diminutive of Dick. The name donkey is perhaps from Duncan or Dominic, and cuddy, a Scottish name for the ass, is probably from Cuthbert.

(The family names Hobson and Dobson are from those pet forms of Robert—cf. Hobson’s choice.)




In early times, hobbies were chiefly referred to as of Irish breed, and in later times also as Welsh or Scotch. For example, a 15th-century poem written about the failed siege of Calais by the Duke of Burgundy in 1436 contains the following:

An Iyrysch man,
Uppone his hoby swyftly ran,
Hyt was a sportfulle syghte.
     in contemporary English:
An Irishman,
Upon his hobby swiftly ran,
It was a sportful [= entertaining] sight.

The term hobby horse was also used in this sense; John Florio (1553-1625), English lexicographer, teacher of languages, translator and author of Italian descent, gave the following definition in A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (London, 1598):

Vbinoa hobbie horse, such as Ireland breedeth.

In the sense of a child’s toy consisting of a stick with a model of a horse’s head at one end, hobby horse is first recorded in The Arte of English Poesie. Contriued into three Bookes: the first of Poets and Poesie, the second of Proportion, the third of Ornament (London, 1589), by the author and literary critic George Puttenham (circa 1529-circa 1591):

(1869 reprint)
King Agesilaus hauing a great sort of little children, was one day disposed to solace himself among them in a gallery where they plaied, and tooke a little hobby horse of wood and bestrid it to keepe them in play.

Because a favourite occupation or topic, pursued merely for the amusement or interest that it affords, was compared to the riding of a toy horse, hobby horse, later hobby, came to denote it. However, the term was initially used derogatorily by the judge and writer Sir Matthew Hale (1609-76) in Contemplations Moral and Divine. By a Person of great Learning and Judgment (London, 1676):

More vain and foolish is that pride, that is raised upon things that are either purely Adventitious or Forein, or in the meer power of other men, as Pride of Wealth, of Honour, of Applause, of Successes in actions, of Titles, gay Cloaths, many Attendants, great Equipage, Precedency, and such like accessions: And yet it is admirable to observe the Vanity of the generality of mankind, in this respect; there is scarce a man to be found abroad in the world, who hath not some elation of mind, upon the account of these and the like petty, vain, inconsiderable advantages; in all professions, as well Ecclesiastical as Secular; in all ranks and degrees of men, from the Courtier to the Page and Footboy; in all ages, as well old, as young; almost every person hath some hobby horse or other wherein he prides himself.

The shortened form denoting such an occupation or topic is first attested in The Antiquary (Edinburgh, 1816), by the Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832):

I quarrel with no man’s hobby, if he does not run it a tilt against mine.

In Peveril of the Peak (Edinburgh, 1823), the same author wrote, about Lady Peveril:

The good lady, in consideration, perhaps, of extensive latitude allowed to her in the more important concerns of the family, made a point of never interfering with her husband’s whims or prejudices; and it is a compromise which we would heartily recommend to all managing matrons of our acquaintance; for it is surprising how much real power will be cheerfully resigned to the fair sex, for the pleasure of being allowed to ride one’s hobby in peace and quiet.

(In French, dada, a child’s word meaning horse (comparable to British-English gee-gee) is also used in the sense of a favourite occupation or topic.)

In the following cartoon caption from Punch, or the London Charivari of 8th September 1860, hobby is used in both the senses of toy and favourite topic; John Russell is holding a hobby horse on which is carved the word Reform, and Master Pam is packing up unsettled bills (in 1860, the Liberal politician John Russell attempted to introduce electoral reform, but the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, nicknamed Pam, was against it):

Punch, or the London Charivari - 8 September 1860 - ‘hobby’ (toy and favourite topic)

Packing up for the holidays.

Master John Russell. “Please, Pam, find room for this.”
Master Pam (the Big Boy of the School). “No, certainly not. You must leave that old hobby of yours behind.”




The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used hobby horse in the sense of loose woman, for example in The Tragœdy of Othello, The Moore of Venice (Quarto 1, 1622):

                                                                                                                  Enter Bianca.
– Iago. Before me, looke where she comes,
Tis such another ficho; marry a perfum’d one, what doe you meane
by this hanting of me.
– Bianca. Let the diuel and his dam haunt you, what did you meane
by that same handkercher, you gaue mee euen now? I was a fine
foole to take it; I must take out the whole worke, a likely peece of
worke, that you should find it in your chamber, and not know who
left it there: this is some minxes token, and I must take out the
worke; there, giue it the hobby horse, wheresoeuer you had it, I’le
take out no worke on’t.

The word hobby horse had or still has several other meanings; in particular:

– In morris dancing and in burlesques, pantomimes, etc., a figure of a horse made of wickerwork or other light material, furnished with a deep housing and fastened about the waist of the performer who executes various antics in imitation of the movements of a skittish or spirited horse.

– A kind of velocipede, introduced in 1818 by the German inventor Karl Drais (1785-1851), an early form of the bicycle in which the rider sat on a bar between the two wheels, and propelled himself by pushing the ground with each foot alternately; it was also called dandy-horse and draisine in English, draisienne in French, Laufmaschine (running machine) in German.

Johnson, the First Rider on the Pedestrian Hobbyhorse

Johnson, the First Rider on the Pedestrian Hobbyhorse (early 19th century)
image: Archives départementales des Yvelines

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