Natural Selection

The dilemma of choices

These are tough times, and politicians have to make hard choices about how to spend the smaller amounts of money they have. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, for example, has told the city’s labor unions, including teachers, police officers and firefighters, that they will probably have to decide between smaller raises or layoffs, a decision he called “a Hobson’s choice.”

According to numerous sources and legends, the phrase “Hobson’s choice” comes from Tobias (or Thomas) Hobson, who ran a livery stable in Cambridge, England, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As the story goes, Hobson wanted to be sure the horses he leased were always fresh, so he rotated them. (Or, according to other accounts, he was lazy and didn’t want to go far into the stable, so he always offered the horse nearest the door.) The person who wanted a horse couldn’t ask for a specific one; he had to take the horse that Hobson offered. In other words, Hobson had all the choice—the renter could take it or leave it. So a “Hobson’s choice” came to mean no choice at all. (Interestingly, the first use of “Hobson’s choice” documented by the Oxford English Dictionary came in 1660, about thirty years after Hobson died.)

So by that definition, teachers, police officers and firefighters in New York City do not have a “Hobson’s choice,” because Bloomberg is offering a choice between raises (a good thing, even if not as large they want) or layoffs (a bad thing). Bloomberg is in good company, though: “Hobson’s choice” has shown up about a hundred times in the last six months or so, usually in the context of someone having to make a choice where neither outcome is positive.

But as discussed in a CJR magazine column in 2008, that’s really a “dilemma,” which traditionally has meant a decision with two or more negative outcomes (think “horns of a dilemma”). “Dilemma” itself, though, has degraded, and now is more commonly used to mean merely a difficult choice—which college to go to, for example—even if one or all of the outcomes could be good. A choice that’s a relatively minor problem, such as whether to wear the polka-dot tie or the striped one, is more of a “quandary,” a word that used to mean a perplexing problem.

Although most dictionaries give a “Hobson’s choice” and stick to its traditional meaning, what we’re seeing here is an evolution. “Hobson’s choice,” which used to mean “no choice,” has evolved to mean “a choice with no good outcome.” That meant that “dilemma” was now free to become “a difficult choice,” making “quandary” less useful, and thus used less.

So what does one call a situation where one has no choice? You can still call it a “Hobson’s choice” if you want. It’s your choice—take it or leave it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.