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Monday, January 28, 2013

"Have it in any color"

When it came to a decision about the size of an Avastin dose recently, I used a particular term, and then got curious about just where it came from. I was surprised to find that it was some 400 years old. Here's the origin.

A man well known and generally much respected in Cambridge knew how to manage horses; after all, he had a lot of them and he tended them carefully, hiring them out mostly to scholars. It wasn't a bad living in the seventeenth century CE.

   He kept a precise record of when each horse had been taken out, and how far and how hard they had been ridden. He usually knew his clients, so he had a fair idea how his horse had been treated.

   Scholars may have been masters of their own discipline, but often had little concern for the welfare of the Hackneys* they rode.

   With that in mind, he rotated his stock so that no one animal was overworked.

   Some of his prospective clients demanded to choose which horse they were hiring.

   "Here is your choice," he told every customer, "you have the one in the stall closest to the stable door. Or you will have none."

   His name was Tobias Hobson. I like his style, even though I wasn't keen on my Hobson's choice.

Digging into, I found that Hobson had made it into the famous journal of the day, the Spectator. Issue No. 509, 1712 explains how Hobson conducted his business, which shows clearly the origin of the saying:

'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..., 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.

A modern version is that of Henry Ford. “People can have the Model T in any color – so long as it’s black.”

It seems Ford said "History is bunk" as well, along with other comments about history as a discipline. When I saw it first as a History Honours student, I was much offended, and thought him an utter philistine. It was only later in life that I realised my understanding of what he was talking about might be quite up the spout.

   It depends completely upon what he meant by "history". As an historian all my life, if we take one meaning of the word, I'm inclined to agree with him. But that's another story.
   It's history. And he might still be a philistine.

Afterword (29 January 2013):

There's a strange galaxy of near-coincidences in this universe. Take that of the venerable Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October 2012, and Henry Ford. As an undergrad studying the course Britain in the Nineteenth Century, I really did plough through relevant portions of Hobsbawm's most famous trilogy covering industry and empire from 1750 onwards. I can't help thinking of Henry Ford as representing the Industry and Empire part of it.

And the near-coincidence? "Hobsbawm" is kind of close to "Hobson" isn't it? Hobsbawm was a scholar at Cambridge for years, though I can't see him in a drunken state flogging a Hobson Hackney round the town.

*Hackneys are a superb breed of British horse – hard-working and tough, adapted to pulling cabs in major cities.


  1. I never knew this was the origin of the phrase - thank you. But do you think they really were Hackneys - for riding? I'd have thought the hackney action would make them very uncomfortable to ride. Maybe they were not bred to have that highstepping gait they now have until they were used exclusively for harness?

    1. I believe you're on to something with your last question. From my horseriding days I think there are several possibilities here.

      1. "Hackney" may have been more widely used as a general term for a horse [including ponies] than it is so rigidly defined now. The breed itself will have been modified by selective breeding, as with dogs etc.

      2. It could also be used for horses of mixed breeding. Strength and endurance would have been the characteristics highest on Hobson's list when he was a-buying.

      3. Even if the Hackney were purebred, the trotting action favoured for harness horses might not have been so obvious then. Horses can change their gait, even trotting action, and can do it on command, as with the difference between trotting and pacing. [This difference has never ceased to amaze me. Nor, when a pacer in full flight passes you two metres away, is the sheer speed.]

      My point there is that a harness horse can be quite a comfortable riding horse as long as it's not doing the fancy stuff.

      4. There may be other and better explanations by those who know the history of the Hackney breed of horses and ponies. Of course they're best known now for their use as harness horses with carriages and cabs. But they are a magnificent horse breed for hard work. Many an Australian stock horse has Hackney blood in it.

  2. It never ceases to amaze me what I learn on this blogspot. Anne P

    1. Many many years ago, a former colleague of mine knew all sorts of odd things. Another colleague cruelly described his mind as 'an academic dustbin'.

      Like that, ya mean? :)

  3. Academic dustbin? I like it. I was once introduced, somewhat flatteringly, as a 'mine of miscellaneous information'. At least, I think it was a compliment.

    Thank you Denis, I had never checked out where the oft-used phrase, ‘Hobson’s choice’ came from; now I know.

    Now to Henry Ford, and what we need to know. When I was in my teens – who can remember that far back? – I read books by Henry Ford and others telling me how to make a fortune. One exercise, I remember, was to visualise a large sum of money and, each day, re-affirm my determination to possess it and thus become a millionaire. It worked brilliantly. I got there – eventually - but, alas, it took so long that inflation had reduced my large sum of money to barely enough to buy a second-hand car.

    I remember two things about Henry Ford. The first was your quoted ‘History is bunk’ which, like you, I thought to be a ridiculous statement. But when, later, I pondered on Winston Churchill’s ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it’, I realised that history is generally written by the winners, and re-written by those who displace them. Certainly not all history is bunk, but I wouldn’t place bets on the detail.

    The other quote of Henry Ford’s came during a libel action he took against a newspaper which called him ‘an ignorant pacifist’. The newspaper’s lawyers set out to prove that the poorly-educated Ford was, indeed, ignorant. Eventually Ford pointed his finger at the lawyer who had asked an academic question, and said, "If I should really WANT to answer the foolish question you have just asked, or any of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts. Now, will you kindly tell me, WHY I should clutter up my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any knowledge I require?"

    In truth, I don’t agree with Ford, I believe that the broadest possible education gives a depth of understanding on which to make life decisions. At the same time though, it underlines for me the principle that the purpose of education is to make us think, not turn us into walking text books. It is best to know a little about a lot, know what specialised information is available, and know how to access it.

    1. Thanks, Bob – you know a great deal more about Ford that I ever will. Had the newspaper any sense they would have saved the trouble and expense by simply paying up [even more never to have published in the first place]. Pacifism maybe, but it's as impossible to prove someone's ignorant as to prove they are not! It all depends on the field.

      The comments on history are apt. Historians always have a point of view, and they never know all the 'facts'. They tell the story as they see it or imagine it to be.

      You were sadly mistaken in settling on a figure to be rich in your later years – exactly the same one as people make when they take out life insurance at an early age. Cheers!

  4. "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." - Mahatma Gandhi

    1. If you survive that long.... :) Luckily the Brits played the game by the rules, more or less – i.e., the law, so he as a skilled lawyer could play them at their own game.

      There were some other colonial powers whose instruction would have been to take Gandhi down a back alley and deal with him differently.

  5. Until now, I've always thought of "Hobson's choice" as having negative connotations...meaning, having no choice at all, really.
    Now, I see, that although the riders might have been miffed, Hobson had his horses' welfare uppermost in his mind. To the riders he said, "Tough!"

    Now I see a similar benevolence in the "To Avastin - or not to Avastin...that is the question", question. I believe you're (pl) right: Avastin is the horse closest to the stable door.

    (We had to make the same kind of decision - to stop every-other-day injections of Betaferon after 10 years. Hard many hard decisions. Barely a day goes by without some hardish decision needing to be made. But they're not all such biggies as the Avastin one.)
    Good luck, my friend.

    1. It's a pretty fine line between saying he gave them a choice or none. It depends on how much they needed to go about their business on horseback or settle for shanks's pony.

      Yes, re medical choices. In many cases, you just have to choose, even when you have genuine alternatives. As you know, you weigh up the risks, make a decision and don't contemplate too hard what might have happened had you gone the other way – because you just don't know and never will. In a sense, Hobson's Choice makes it easier.

      I find it sad when people constantly re-run the 'If only I'd gone the other way.' It could still have ended up with similar regrets.

      Even a clear disaster like plastic surgery that went hideously wrong when any observer would have said it wasn't needed – it's over and done, and now you do your best to make it better, if possible. You just can't go back.

      Easy to say, yes. Not always so easy to do....


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