“Spoilt [or “Spoiled”] for Choice”

On my first extended stay in England, some fifteen years ago, I encountered the expression “spoilt for choice,” referring (forgive me if this is obvious)  to a situation where one has a lot of options. Ever since, I have been looking for an appearance on these shores, presumably with the first word spelled “spoiled.”

My wait is finally over. The ever-observant Jan Freeman sent a link to a Wall Street Journal article about women’s trousers that contains the line “Those wanting to make a higher-end designer commitment will be spoiled for choice.”

I was going to categorize this as an “outlier,” on account of the author of the WSJ article, Alice Cavanagh. Her blog doesn’t give her nationality, but most of her writing has been for the British or Australian editions of “Vogue.” So she probably wasn’t even aware she was writing anything out of the ordinary.

But then I found it a couple of times in the New York Times archives, including a 2014 article about a New Jersey ice cream joint: “customers can also find themselves spoiled for choice at the 1940s-style roadside walk-up, which lists 60 flavors of homemade hard ice cream and 11 of soft serve on its outdoor sign.”

So “spoiled for choice” gets bumped up to “On the radar.”

6 responses to ““Spoilt [or “Spoiled”] for Choice”

  1. We are very rich in phrases which have crossed the Pond in our direction – ‘the whole nine yards’ and ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ spring immediately to mind – so I’m glad it’s happening in the opposite direction too. ‘Spoilt for choice’ is a particularly fine example of British self-deprecation, implying that one doesn’t quite deserve one’s good fortune, but one is grateful for it nevertheless.

  2. The opposite of which is “Hobson’s choice” – i.e. no choice at all – which I would be surprised to find has crossed the pond going West…

  3. The Ngram viewer shows “Hobson’s choice” usage almost as high in Leftpondia with equal frequencies in 1900 !

  4. I looked up “Hobson’s choice” in the Oxford English Dictionary, which dates the phrase from about 1660 and says it was “Named from Tobias Hobson, the Cambridge carrier (commemorated by Milton in two Epitaphs), who let out horses, and is said to have compelled customers to take the horse which happened to be next the stable-door, or go without.” That is, the traditional definition is a little different from “no choice at all”–as the OED puts it, it’s “the option of taking the one thing offered or nothing.” But that situation doesn’t come up all that often, so it makes sense that the meaning would broaden over the the years. The dictionary also mentions that “Hobson’s” is rhyming slang for “voice.”

  5. I think the “go without” alternative is still implicit in the currently understood meaning.

    Henry Ford offered a car in any colour you wished “provided it was black”.

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