Hobson’s Choice

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In this final piece on euphemisms and expressions in the English language, we explain why anyone would ever be ‘sent to Coventry’, wear ‘a feather in their cap’ or be ‘blackballed’…

To be blackballed
When someone is ‘blackballed’ it means that his application for membership to a club has been rejected. The phrase comes from the practice of voting with coloured balls. When members considered a new applicant, they placed their chosen ball in an urn that served as a ballot box (the word ballot means a little ball). A white ball was interpreted as a favourable and a black ball an adverse vote. The rules were strict. Even if only one ball was found to be black, when the votes were counted, the applicant was rejected.

Achilles’ heel
This refers to the weak and vulnerable point in a person’s character that is otherwise without fault. It originates from the Ancient Greek story of Thetis who hung onto her son Achilles by the heel, when he was a child, and then dipped him in the river Styx in order to make him invulnerable. In the subsequent Trojan wars, in which Achilles distinguished himself as the bravest of fighters, he was finally slain by an arrow aimed at the one vulnerable part of his body. This was the tendon of the heel by which his mother had held him, and which had therefore remained dry when she had dipped him in the Styx.

To send someone to Coventry
This refers to a type of punishment inflicted by a group of people, who refuse to associate or speak with someone who has either caused offense or broken some rule. It goes all the way back to the English Civil War in the 17th Century, when Coventry was a Parliamentary stronghold. The king’s soldiers were so hated by the citizens that Royalist prisoners who were taken captive around Birmingham were sent to Coventry. For it was accepted that in Coventry people would ignore them and carry on as if they were not there.

To dot the i’s and cross the t’s
This means to pay the utmost attention to detail when performing a task, in particular in preparing and checking agreements, documents or contracts, where the greatest importance is attached to each word contained in them. It came from when official documents were hand-written and there could obviously be confusion when these two letters of the alphabet were not completed by the administrator. A part of the expression was translated by the navy in the form of “go back and cross the t’s” which was directed at a helmsman who had steered an erratic course and ‘written their name’ in the ship’s wake.

Hobson’s choice
This signifies that there is only one course of action, or interpreted as there is no choice as there is no alternative. The phrase had its origin five hundred years ago in Cambridge, where a Thomas Hobson used to keep a large number of horses for hire in his stable. Whenever anyone wanted to hire a horse, he always only offered the one nearest the stable door. Customers had to accept this and so had no choice at all. Hobson might appear to have been unreasonable, but he wasn’t really. He was considerate towards his animals and used his system of ‘Hobson’s choice’ to ensure that no horse was overworked for each one was used in strict rotation.

A feather in your cap
This refers to an award or an acknowledgement of an achievement for which one has every reason to be proud. It’s origins are open to interpretation but most likely it derives from the custom of American Indians who wore feathers to signify their bravery in war. The number of feathers that they wore in their headgear used to account for each of their slain enemies. Others interpret the phrase as referring to the smooth, slender, glossy, black plumage of the heron’s crest that was considered a mark of great distinction in the days of medieval chivalry. This was used to adorn the caps where the centre carried the ostrich-white plume of the noble Knights of the Garter. Admiral Lord Nelson wore a wonderful heron’s plume, elaborately set in diamonds, which was given to him by the Sultan of Persia and was the highest honour conferred upon him.

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