The Hobson Act.

Over at, cuchuflete has discovered a briefly popular slang phrase of unknown origin:

Googling the phrase, “do the Hobson act” yields a small batch of quotations suggesting that it means kissing […]

Indianapolis Sun Newspaper Archives, Sep 29, 1899, p. 1

Thursday puckered up her lips to do the Hobson act to Dewey As she Shook his hand. Dewey s Flag officer pushed her away and the Admiral was saved

“I won’t be embraced, I won’t, I won’t,” cried the old sailor, frantically. “Come, Captain, do the Hobson act,” said Walter, “the ladies expect it.” …

Page 6 — Indianapolis News 1 September 1899 – Hoosier State Chronicles

A young man in a Wabash paper mill tried to do the Hobson act with one of the ycung women employes, and she attacked him with a saw […]

I wrote:

Very interesting! Here’s another, from the Crawfordsville [Indiana] Journal, September 22, 1899, p. 5:

Did you see the kissing bug at the church Sunday evening? The young man in question didn’t wait for a better opportunity, but did the Hobson act right there in the church.

And from Town Talk [San Francisco], July 3, 1899, p. 10:

As the bride and bridegroom appeared at the door the old familiar wedding march was played and then it was decided that all the men present should kiss the bride and that the ladies should do the Hobson act with Mr. Bride.

It seems to have flared up in the summer of 1899 and immediately died out without leaving a clue as to its origin!

Perhaps someone can come up with more information? (If you’re wondering, the OED advanced search says “No results found for ‘Hobson act’.”)


  1. I have a deadline and shouldn’t even be reading blogs, but I do see a Richmond Pearson Hobson who became the “most kissed man in America” in 1898…?

  2. That’s got to be the source — well done!

  3. I learn that Hobson-Jobson is a folk-etymological alteration of the Islamic Indian expression Hasan! Husayn! evoking the grandsons of the prophet. Reding about the grandsons I learn that Hasan had some reputation (probably ill-deserved) as a womanizer/serial divorcer. I very much doubt that’s the origin, but it would have been fun.

    Rather, this is about the great celebrity of the Spanish-American war, Richmond B. Hobson (1870-1937). From Wikipedia:

    Crowds greeted his train at many stations, and his enthusiasm for kissing admiring young women made him a sex symbol of the Victorian age.[1] He became a sort of celebrity during the rise of popular journalism at the turn of the century and was referred to as “the most kissed man in America.”

  4. Be careful not to confuse it with the

  5. Biscia beat me to it. That’s what you get for researching while cooking,

  6. From Wikipedia, Hobson sounds like he was a very interesting guy. It says Tesla was the best man at his wedding.

    There’s probably also a joke to be made here about “doing the Mann Act.”

  7. What’ve we got here? Crowd-searched etymology?

  8. Looks like Hobson died with a smile on his face.

  9. What’ve we got here? Crowd-searched etymology?

    A LH specialty (or, if you prefer, speciality).

  10. A LH specialty…

    A or An? Discuss.

  11. I vote for An.

  12. Strange that the Monday evening, 8 November 1886, issue of The Seymour [Indiana] Daily Democrat reported,

    ‘Charles E. Woodward went hunting, to-day. When the squirrels see Charles coming they gracefully do the Hobson act,—they “come down.”‘

  13. A or An? Discuss.

    Depends on how you (mentally) pronounce LH. I use it as a convenient way to write the name of the blog, and since I’m mentally saying “languagehat,” of course I use “a.” If you read LH and think “ell-aitch,” of course you’ll use “an.”

  14. As always, there is no One True Way.

  15. As always, there is no One True Way.

    As always, there are True Believers who know that theirs is the One True Way.

    H.L. Mencken had this to say about them:

    “ For every complex problem there is a single answer that is clear, simple,

    and wrong.”

  16. As always, there are True Believers who know that theirs is the One True Way.

    They are the bane of human existence, and they are distributed more or less equally among all political and religious persuasions. You’d think anarchists at least would be immune, but no.

  17. @Nick M. Could you please tell us where that issue of the newspaper may be seen (if possible, online).

  18. @cuchuflete: Interestingly there is another canonical version that quote, which I actually prefer.

    Grossman’s misquote of H. L. Mencken: “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand wrong answers.”

  19. @Brett:

    Thanks for that. By way of horse trading—and the price is right—I offer the paraphrase I first heard in Baltimore, some 50+ years ago: For every difficult, vexatious problem there is one easy, simple solution. And it’s wrong.

  20. You’d think anarchists at least would be immune, but no.

    “I toyed with anarchy once, but on reading into the subject I found that […] there are plain anarchists and syndicalist anarchists and deviationist anarchists and for all I know syndicalist deviationist anarchists. There’s as much anarchy in anarchy as there is in any political philosophy.” —Tully Bascomb, political philosopher and future Prince Consort of Grand Fenwick

  21. Well, sure, the problem isn’t that there are a lot of varieties — who wants uniform thinking? — but that the varieties despise each other as much as the various flavors of Marxist-Leninists.

  22. @Martin:

    Sure – I found it on, to which one has to subscribe:

    I actually found that edition, which didn’t come up in my search, via a reprint three days later:

    Searches depend on the quality of the capture and OCR, obviously, plus the site’s search engine has been dumbed down recently, so I didn’t spend much time on this. Still, the majority of results I saw confirm what’s been said above.

    One result is confusingly tagged by the site as printed in January 1881 but was actually printed in January 1899:


  23. practice could be more culturally universal than previously thought

    First records of human kissing may date back 1,000 years earlier than estimated

    …, Mesopotamians and Lits do it, …

    [From the department of the bleedin’ obvious.]

  24. Meh. Kissing in the Middle East goes back to dawn of time.

  25. I think that was my first internet meme!

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Interestingly (or not, as you may think), kissing is not a custom, whether romantic or platonic, among the Kusaasi and their neighbours. The word used for this alien custom in the Bible translation, muak, really means “suck.”* Quite often “greet” or “embrace” are used in the translation instead, as being more culturally appropriate.

    I expect it’s a Sumerian thing, like counting in sixties.

    * Also, “maggot.”

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    In the Prodigal Son story, “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” in Kusaal goes Ka on nam bɛ lalli la, ka o ba’ nyɛɛ o, ka zɔɔ o nimbaanlig, ka zɔɔ bibig o, ka sɛnlim o “When he was still far off, his father saw him, had compassion on him and ran to embrace him and praised him.”

    Sɛnlim “praise, flatter, cajole” is also the verb for singing praise songs: the derived noun sɛnlʋŋ is used to translate “poetry.” Michael Awimbilla, who collaborated with Tony Naden on the Agolle Kusaal dictionary, is quoted there are saying that the Song of Songs is sɛnlʋŋ, which seems a reasonable characterisation of it when you think about it.

    (On the other hand, the pu’asadir “young woman who has not yet given birth” in Song of Songs 1:2 instructs her beloved “Suck me with your mouth: your love surpasses sweet millet beer.” But this is probably felt to be appropriate to the exotic setting.)

  28. A folklore explanation of the origin of lip plates in the Horn of Africa is that began as a conspicuous form of lip deformation. Supposedly, Arab slavers were much less interested in kidnapping girls and women who did not have attractive lips to kiss.

  29. Lip plates (labrets) were also used in NW North America, and still are in Amazonia.

  30. Trond Engen says

    David E.: I expect [kissing i]s a Sumerian thing, like counting in sixties.

    The Sumer of 69?

    The ancient history of kissing

    Sources from Mesopotamia contextualize the emergence of kissing and its role in disease transmission

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    The Sumer of 69?

    Mr Engen, you are a bad man.

    the sexual aspect of kissing was frowned upon in public

    Cato the Censor is supposed to have expelled a senator from the Senate for kissing his (the senator’s) wife in public (and quite right too. Shocking behaviour.)

  32. John Cowan says

    There seems to be a conflation between taboos on kissing in public and on kissing simpliciter.

  33. @John Cowan: That’s presumably true, but the conflation is very old. By his great-grandson’s time, it was said that Cato the Elder had only ever been physically intimate with his wife during a (presumably terrifying) thunderstorm.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    It seems to be a joke told by Cato himself.

    This paper makes a spirited attempt to make out on the basis of it that MPC* respected his wife considerably, and makes a (more plausible) case that he was actually repeating a joke told by his wife.

    At any rate, there’s plenty of evidence that Cato had nothing against sex as such. Macte virtute esto!

    * so that MPC was not, after all, a MCP.

  35. Ceterum censeo Carthaginem futuendam esse…

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    And they did …

  37. ə de vivre says

    I do enjoy the caption to the image in the article TE linked: “A clay model from Mesopotamia, dated ∼1800 BCE, shows a couple kissing.” They are, well, doing significantly more than kissing…

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes. What you might call a primal Hobson act.

  39. Trond Engen says

    Obviously a new medium would be used for porn. I’m only wondering where all the tablets with cute kittens are hidden.

  40. Trond Engen says

    Me: used for porn

    It may not be generally known, but these tablets were stored in buildings called clayboy magazines.

  41. *falls over in an antique faint*

  42. Trond Engen says

    *takes out a monogrammed bottle of smelling salts”

  43. I’m only wondering where all the tablets with cute kittens are hidden
    Babylonians liked their cats big.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    I can haz Hittites?

  45. David Marjanović says

    IM IN UR

    (not original)

    Anyway, u no can has domesticated cats in those sad benighted ages. St00pid! St00pid! sez teh preachurcat.

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