Hobson's » Hobbesian

Chiefly in:   Hobbesian choice

Classification: English – questionable

Spotted in the wild:

  • “George [W. Bush]’s current dilemma is a classic Hobbesian choice, which is no choice at all, the name of which derives from Thomas Hobbes’ belief that man must choose between living in a state of nature (a life which is ’solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’) or suffering under an arbitrary and absolute government…” (Letter to the New York Times from John A. Viterriti, 1/28/05, p. A20)
  • “In ‘Winning Cases, Losing Voters’ (Op-Ed, Jan. 26), Paul Starr presents the Democratic Party with the Hobbesian choice of living by its convictions [AMZ: and losing votes] or compromising its principles in order to get more votes.” (link)
  • “EPA did not make a Hobbesian choice when they banned EDB.” (Letter to the Wall Street Journal by Robert F. Harbrandt, 10 April 1984)

Analyzed or reported by:

  • Various contributors (STUMPERS mailing list, July 2003)
  • Arnold Zwicky (American Dialect Society mailing list, 28/29 January 2005)
  • Mark Liberman, on Language Log, 19 February 2005 (link)

There are expressions that have eggcorns in their history — “cockroach”, “humble pie”, “muskrat”, to choose three of many examples from Michael Quinion’s Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds — but have now lost all tinges of their etymological sources. The eggcorn database would be be considerably swollen if we catalogued the reinterpretations that have gone to completion for all English speakers (except etymological enthusiasts). But every so often a hard nut comes along, and “Hobbesian choice” is one of them.

“Hobson’s choice”, for no choice at all, has been around since 1660, during the lifetime of the inflexible stable-keeper Hobson (c. 1544-1631), an otherwise unremarkable and minor figure in history. OED2 has the adjective “Hobbesian” (from the name of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan was published in 1660) from 1776, but no cites at all for “Hobbesian choice”. So far the earliest cite for “Hobbesian choice” is the Wall Street Journal letter from 1984 (from the 2003 STUMPERS-L discussion). Perhaps the hounds of antedating will find an earlier cite, but it seems unlikely that it will get pushed back more than twenty years — still very very much later than 1660.

The obvious interpretation of these facts, which I suggested in my ADS-L postings and Mark Liberman proposed in his Language Log posting, is that Hobbes’s name got grafted onto Hobson’s, thanks to the phonological similarity in their names and to Hobbes’s much greater reputation. That’s some kind of malaprop, perhaps even an eggcorn.

But “Hobbesian” now seems to have an independent life of its own, with some sort of reference to Hobbes’s ideas, not just his name. Exactly what this reference is depends on who you read: a choice between life in the state of nature and life under an arbitrary and absolute government, as Viterriti has it in the first cite; a choice between nasty, brutish, and short, as Larry Horn waggishly suggested on ADS-L; or a choice between any two unacceptable alternatives (as in the second cite, from a 25 October 2003 column by Edgar J. Steele), which amounts to no choice at all (an idea explicit in Viterriti’s letter). This last possibility brings us back to Hobson, suggesting that “Hobson’s choice” might still play a role for some people in the interpretation of “Hobbesian choice”.

To further complicate matters, the citation that Liberman led with on Language Log — from a New York Magazine column by Kurt Anderson — turns out to have involved what Anderson later claimed was a clever pun.

So it’s a real possibility that some people are producing “Hobbesian choice” as a jokey play on “Hobson’s Choice”; that others have (eggcornically) replaced the obscure “Hobson’s” by the more familiar “Hobbesian”; and that still others simply have two expressions, somewhat related in meaning: “Hobson’s choice”, an opaque idiom, versus “Hobbesian choice”, with an allusion to the ideas of Hobbes.

| link | entered by Arnold Zwicky, 2005/09/19 |

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