NYT Overdoes the Etymology of Morton’s Fork

This has to be the most bizzaro sentence in my newspaper in some time. Explaining the origins of 'Morton's fork', prose stylist Clyde Haberman may have gone slightly overboard on the pop culture:

It is named for John Morton, an English lord chancellor in the 15th century who shaped a make-everyone-pay policy for tax collection under Henry VII, one king too soon for Herman's Hermits.

Get the context at On New York Ballot, Questions With No Good Choices.

Incidentally, I also think the basic conceit of the article is wrong: there is no Morton's Fork (“two alternatives that will produce equally unpalatable results”) here as one of the choices is better than the status quo, which is the other choice.

Anyway, what's wrong with Hobson's Choice?

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3 Responses to NYT Overdoes the Etymology of Morton’s Fork

  1. miami grad says:

    Respectfully, I think you’re missing the author’s point. According to his interpretation of the ballot initiatives, both “alternatives produce equally unpalatable results.” You just disagree that that’s the case. But that doesn’t mean that he’s using Morton’s Fork incorrectly.

    Which is also why Hobson’s choice wouldn’t work here, which means a take-it-or-leave-it situation. Again, since the author is emphasizing that both alternatives — either voting for or against — produce equally unpalatable results, using Hobson’s choice would be incorrect.

    At any rate, both terms — desipte their cultish quality (especially among lawyers) — are cliches, and are therefore best to be avoided.

  2. michael says:

    If one can have a “Morton’s fork” where one of the choices is the status quo, then you’re right. I thought both forks had to differ from the status quo, but I could easily be wrong on that.

    I was not aware these were cultish terms in legal circles. I lead a sheltered life.

  3. miami grad says:

    I see your point better now, and you may indeed be right. That nevertheless strikes me as a narrow view on the term: why couldn’t one choose the status quo? And why couldn’t choosing the status quo produce an “unpalatable result”? Isn’t that pretty much the conservative party line on, say, the future of Social Security? Or the liberal — and senisble, in my view — line on global warming? That if we choose the status quo we’ll eventually be living on a hotter and hotter planet?

    Rehnquist used these and kindred terms often. E.g., Planned P’hood v. Casey (Potemkin Village); City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey (Hobson’s Choice). He made them work, but I think they’re a bit overused.

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