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Diet of worms is Hobson’s breakfast choice

[8 December 2011] BBC Radio 4’s early-morning Today programme often jolts listeners into wakefulness with some arresting piece of English. Last week, one speaker declared that a problem had ‘opened a Pandora’s box to reveal a can of worms’ – as surprising a mixed metaphor as you could hope for.

This morning the BBC’s Europe correspondent referred to David Cameron’s dilemma of having to select one of two poor alternatives as representing ‘Hobson’s choice’. Except that Hobson’s choice means having no choice at all, save to accept or reject the sole offer available.

The derivation takes us back to Elizabethan England. According to www.phrases.org.uk, ‘Thomas Hobson (1545–1631) ran a thriving carrier and horse rental business in Cambridge, England, around the turn of the 17th century. Hobson rented out horses, mainly to Cambridge University students, but refused to hire them out other than in the order he chose. The choice his customers were given was “this or none”; quite literally, Hobson’s choice.’ [MC]

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