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Hobson’s Choice for dinner and more

My Mom has had a Family Circus cartoon on her fridge for years.

One of the kids asks the mother: “What are the choices for dinner?” And the mother says, “Two – take it or leave it”.

At the time, I just appreciated the humour, because it also reflected what it was like in our house most of the time. We kept things simple at dinner. It wasn’t like going to a restaurant or even a drive-in and being able to order whatever we wanted.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Mom was presenting us with something which has been in the English language for some 400 years. She was giving us Hobson’s choice.

Thomas Hobson was a livery stable owner in Cambridge in the late 1500s. His stable apparently had about 40 horses in it. Livery stables varied in services offered. Some of them were simply places for people to keep their own horses for a fee. Others, such as Hobson’s, offered horses for rent to travellers.

With 40 horses, most travellers who came into the stable for the first time were almost overwhelmed with the choices available.

But Hobson had noticed something in his years in business, and it wasn’t a surprise: The best horses were rented most often and got overused.

So he came up with a simple solution.

When he brought you to the stable to choose a horse, he showed you the horse in the stall closest to the door and gave you the choice: take it or leave it.

You could not choose any of the other horses in the stable. It was that one or nothing. For Hobson, it solved the problem of horses getting overused, since each horse was rented out the same number of times.

You may recall I mentioned that Hobson’s stable was located in Cambridge, already home to one of England’s best-known universities, so he got a fair bit of business from the students there.

Apparently they were the ones who first started using the expression “Hobson’s choice” to describe his business model, and it has been with us since.

Please note the difference between Hobson’s choice and other expressions regarding choices you can make. Some people equate Hobson’s choice to a dilemma, which is a little bit different. In a dilemma you have a choice between two options (or, stretching the language a bit, more than two), but the implication is none of the choices is attractive.

In a Hobson’s choice, there is no such judgment on the choices.

So always remember, when it comes to reading this column each week, you have Hobson’s choice – although I do hope you will choose the option of taking it.


What do you think about this story?