March 06, 2005

An eggcorn hatches

OK, it's official. Hobbesian choice is now the blue-state equivalent of the French choix cornélien: a forced choice between two unattractive alternatives. Well, it's not exactly official -- there's no Blue State Academy to decide these things -- but after reading James Wolcott's 3/2/2005 attack on Kurt Anderson, it looks to me like we've passed the sociolinguistic tipping point on this one.

You can read all about the Great Hobbesian Choice Brouhaha in this 2/19/2005 post, but here's a quick summary. Back in April of 2003, Peter Wood at the National Review trashed John Payton, who argued for the University of Michigan in Gratz v. Bollinger, for using the phrase "Hobbesian choice". Wood took this to be a malapropism for the long-established idiom "Hobson's choice", indicating that "diversity's defenders came across as stridently self-righteous and pretty sloppy about the details". Then Kurt Anderson wrote in the 2/21/2005 New York Magazine about our "Hobbesian choice" in Iraq -- "either we hope for the vindication of Bush’s risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in a de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians", according to him. Some bloggers rapped his knuckles for the apparent mistake, and I agreed: "Even if there is a valid and coherent reason for Anderson to see his choice as a 'Hobbesian choice', he can't use that phrase without taking literate readers aback, and leading some of them to make fun of him. Unless, of course, he can convince them that the whole thing was a clever pun all along." Then Anderson wrote to Jim Hanas that indeed, he meant the phrase as a piece of word-play.

Now James Wolcott has posted a stinging attack on Kurt Anderson under the heading "Take this binary mode and shove it": "bright and intelligent in a completely uninteresting way", "glib in a Manhattan Mandarin manner that conceals the glibness behind a knowingness that itself conceals a lack of deeper, driving conviction", "one of those media personalities who's always 'positioning' himself without ever taking a real position".

The character evaluation aside, Wolcott quotes approvingly from Matt Taibbi:

"'Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq' [Andersen writes]. This is horseshit on its face. Even the original Hobbesian choice was horseshit, especially in the eyes of the stereotypical New York liberal Andersen is addressing. We no more have to choose between chaos and authoritarianism than we do between rooting for Bush and rooting for the insurgents. There is a vast array of other outcomes and developments to root for."

Taibbi assumes without comment that "the original Hobbesian choice" was between chaos and authoritarianism, and Wolcott accepts that assumption without comment. I think it's going to be impossible to put this horse back in Hobson's stable, even if we wanted to -- there's a second idiom now.

There are plenty of precedents for the stable [sorry] co-existence of eggcornic idiom pairs: "butt naked" vs. "buck naked" (where scholarship seems unable to establish which was the original), and "home in" vs. "hone in", "deep seated" vs. "deep seeded", and many more. What's interesting about this case is that there's also a subtle but clear difference in meaning: a Hobson's choice between something bad and nothing, and a Hobbesian choice between equally unwanted opposites.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 6, 2005 07:50 AM