Day 73: Get a hobby.Posted: March 14, 2011
Hobby is a word with an interesting history. I looked it up – in the OED, where else? – because the definition I carry around in my head is both precise and nebulous: I can think of plenty of things that are hobbies, and I understand the connections between these disparate activities, but I didn’t think I could articulate the definition in a lucid, concise, and accurate manner.
The OED does lucid, concise, and accurate pretty well: 5. A favourite occupation or topic, pursued merely for the amusement or interest that it affords, and which is compared to the riding of a toy horse (sense 3); an individual pursuit to which a person is devoted (in the speaker’s opinion) out of proportion to its real importance.
Notice the bit about the “toy horse” – that’s a hobby-horse, which is, at its simplest, a wooden rod with a horse head at one end. This sense of “hobby-horse ” dates (in print, at least) to 1589, and by 1676 “hobby-horse ” also meant “a favourite pursuit or pastime” – and it wasn’t until 1816 that this sense of “hobby-horse” was shortened to “hobby” in the sense quoted above.
So: hobby-horse  as toy horse (1589) begets hobby-horse  as pastime (1676) begets hobby  as (somewhat childish and foolish) pastime (1816). As an aside: the dates in the OED are the dates that words first appeared in print (or manuscript, in some cases, and electronically, possibly, in others) – because there are records of these things – but, for example, “hobby” was probably used in speech to mean “a favourite occupation” much earlier than 1816, if only because people like to shorten things. Personally, I’d probably get tired of saying “hobby-horse” after about twenty minutes.
The earliest definition of “hobby” is a small or middle-sized horse; an ambling or pacing horse; a pony, and this definition dates (in print, in modern English) to about 1400 – and it comes from an older Middle-English word. So there. This (original) sense of the word “hobby” persisted until at least 1860, which may account for why “hobby”  didn’t become short for “hobby-horse”  until 1816.
There are, amazingly, a few other senses of “hobby-horse” worth mentioning. For a few brief years around 1820, a “hobby-horse”  was a kind of push-bicycle, a contraption that seems both ridiculous and ridiculously inefficient, or at least less efficient than walking – except maybe going downhill. It was forty years after this when somebody finally got the idea to add cranks and pedals, and the precursor to the modern bicycle was born.
The best sense of the word “hobby-horse,” however, first appeared in Shakespeare’s Loves Labours Lost (1598) (and again in Much Ado About Nothing, a few years later): A lustful person; a loose woman, prostitute. That’s right: a loose woman. This sense is, arguably, still present in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the first volumes of which were published in 1759 – but probably none of you will ever read it, because I seem to be one of the few people anywhere who actually enjoys it, so you don’t need to remember that any time Uncle Toby’s hobby-horse comes up, there’s a joke about prostitutes.
While this sense of “hobby-horse” never appears in print as just “hobby” – at least in the estimation of the editors of the OED – I find it hard to believe, given the closely-interrelated histories of the two words, that no instance of the word “hobby” ever puns on “hobby-horse meaning loose woman.” It’s just too good not to have happened.
Thus: I’m interpreting today’s task as “get a loose woman” – and I’m going to re-interpret that as “get a woman loose.” So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a wife to massage.