Phrase Origins: Hobson’s Choice

When I first heard the phrase “Hobson’s choice,” I, too, like many people thought it referred to Thomas Hobbes and maybe it should have been “Hobbesian choice.” However, the phrase does not refer to Thomas Hobbes and it is correctly written and said, “Hobson’s choice.”

Meaning of the Phrase

The phrase “Hobson’s choice” means to not really have a choice. It is the only thing that can be chosen for any reason.

Phrase Origin

A legend tells of a man named Thomas Hobson who rented horses. It is said that he would not let people choose the horses they wanted to rent. Instead, he always chose the horse that was rented. This seems to be folk etymology, where people attribute a phrase to any story that has been heard or that they create. However, this time, the etymology is true. The phrase “Hobson’s choice” refers to Thomas Hobson, the horse renter and not Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher.

Thomas Hobson lived from 1545 to 1631. He lived in Cambridge, England where he ran a horse rental business. He mainly rented to Cambridge students. Their choices when renting horses were “this or none” when he was giving a horse to be rented. This was literally Hobson’s choice. The students had no say in the horse that was rented.

By 1660, the phrase was written in The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies by Samuel Fisher. He wrote, ” “If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson’s choice … which is, chuse whether you will have this or none.” Then in 1712, The Spectator, No. 509 , contained the following describing Hobson’s business and showing how the phrase, “Hobson’s choice,” originated. “He lived in Cambridge , and observing that the Scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large Stable of Horses, … 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.”

While 86 was a very good age to reach during the time Thomas Hobson lived, John Milton oddly wrote of him, “He had bin an immortall Carrier.” After all, 86 was not immortal.

Related Phrases

” Hobson’s” became Cockney rhyming slang for “voice.” “Choice” rhymes with “voice.” “Hobson’s choice” is a perfect phrase for Cockney rhyming slang as “choice” can be cut off and “Hobson’s” can then be used.

” Any color you like, so long as it’s black” was used by Henry Ford when the Model T was produced. This is like Hobson’s choice since the only color choice available was black, so customer’s didn’t truly have a choice of the color car that they wanted.


Martin, G. (n.d.). Hobson’s choice. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases . Retrieved January 3, 2012, from

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