On Hobbies

People reading this blog may have deduced that I like words – specifically where words come from and how we use them. You could say finding out about words and their origins is a hobby of mine.

Hobbies, as we understand them – pleasant, amateurish interests, usually pretty harmless and mildly amusing to our friends and relations, were once frowned up as not serious enough pursuits for hard working and religious people. This changed in the nineteenth century, when purposeful use of leisure (as opposed to bad use of free time, like drinking too much and gambling) was actively encouraged by social reformers. Hence the proliferation of cycling clubs, reading groups and public lectures. These days students applying for university agonise over what hobbies to list on their CVs to make themselves look interesting, and so stand out from other applicants.

The word as we use it now has an unusual derivation. A hobby originally was a falcon or, somewhat confusingly, a small horse. After time it was linked to hobby-horse – a wooden ride-on toy consisting of a horse’s head and a stick, and popular with children a hundred or so years ago. A hobby-horse was also an early form of bicycle without pedals, ridden by adults before ‘proper’ bikes were developed. One can easily see how someone’s hobby, that borders on an obsession, has come to be associated with the term hobby-horse.

The word’s origins are in the Old French hoberer – to jump about, and the Old Dutch hobbelen – to roll or turn – as birds like falcons / hobbies do.

Fun fact: Before the creation of internet games, Subbuteo (a form of table football) was a very popular hobby, especially among boys and young men. The name comes from falco subbuteo, and is a bit of a play on words by the game’s creator, Peter Adolph. Adolph was refused a trademark to call the game hobby, so used a Latin form of the of the word for a small falcon, which as you know now, if you didn’t before, is also known as a hobby.

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