Thomas Hobson (1544-1631) is still famous through the idiom, “Hobson’s Choice”, which means basically “take it or leave it”. An innkeeper in Cambridge, England, he would hire out his horses (according to information at the Cambridge Guildhall, he had an extensive stable of 40 horses, which was a sign of vast wealth in those days!). To avoid the best horses being favoured and thus worn out more quickly, he devised a rotation system that became known as Hobson’s Choice: The horse closest to the entrance, or none. The idiom is sometimes used erroneously to mean a choice between two equally good (or bad) situations or solutions (which is rather a dilemma, or Morton’s fork); but Hobson’s choice was really a choice between something or nothing.
I first came across the phrase when reading Frederick Hoffman’s “A Sailor of King George“:
I interrogated the next, who was a short, slight, pale-faced man. “And pray,” said I, “what part of the play have you been performing; were you ever at sea?” “No, sir,” said he; “I am a hairdresser, and was pressed a week ago.” “D——n these fellows!” said my captain; “they are all tailors, barbers, or grass-combers. I want seamen.” “Then,” said Captain N., who was the flag-captain, and had just come on board, “I much fear you will be disappointed. These are the only disposable men, and it’sHobson’s choice—those or none.” “The admiral promised me some good seamen,” returned my skipper, rather quickly. “Then I fear the admiral must find them,” was the answer, “as I have not more than twenty seamen on board besides the petty officers. The last were drafted a few days ago in the Defiance. Will you take any of these men, Captain W.?” “What do you think,” said my captain to me; “shall we take any of them?” “Suppose,” returned I, “we take twenty of them and the tailor; they will all fit in in time.” I then picked out twenty of the best, who were bad enough, as they were the worst set I ever saw grouped. Their appearance and dress were wretched in the extreme. I reached the ship before the hour of dinner with my live cargo. “What, more hard bargains,” said the first lieutenant, “we have too many clodhoppers on board already. The captain told me we were to have seamen.” “Captain N.,” said I, “assured our noble captain that the Defiance had taken all the A.B.’s.*” “D——n the Defiance!” replied he; “I defy Captain N. or anybody else to match those gentlemanly ragamuffins.” The master’s mates were called, and they were given into their charge.
Captain Frederick Hoffman. A Sailor of King George (Kindle Locations 2063-2077).
*A.B.s – Able-bodied seamen
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