Six in 10 Americans started a new hobby during the pandemic, according to a survey last winter. This is probably good news for essayists and academics who argue that “Americans need a hobby” and “Millennials don’t have a hobby” and “the hobby is dead ”- having become the lateral restlessness, an informal way to earn money while working regularly.
Leisure occupies a kind of third space: it is not work, although it may require many hours and a lot of concentration, and it is not leisure, the “freedom offered by the cessation of activities”, as Merriam-Webster says. (They are part of what the Romans called otium.) They are “work” for fun, not for pay.
Word hobby has an interesting history, as does the concept of the hobby itself. Cultural attitudes have changed dramatically about which ones are worth pursuing and, indeed, whether it is desirable to have a hobby.
It is probably safe to say that when hobby was first used in the 15th century, most people did not have one, as it referred to a particular type of horse. One hobby was a small horse that could “wander,” a particularly smooth and swift gait that was prized for long rides on terrible roads. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is a short form of Hobbin, the archetypal name for a cart horse, like Rover for a dog.
The hobby also had a part in medieval folklore celebrations. The Mummers and Morris dancers often included one or two people dressed in horse costume or pretending to ride a wooden stick with a horse’s head. These workhorses also made popular children’s toys.
Since workhorses were the domain of young children and pantomime actors, ‘riding your workhorse’ or being ‘on your hobby’ has become an idiom for avidly pursuing an idea or activity that seems silly. to others. Novelist Laurence Sterne popularized it in 1759 with “Tristram Shandy” whose characters are so obsessed as to annoy everyone around them with things like reenactments of battles and collecting books.
Hobbies were considered mildly embarrassing, though mostly harmless, until the 18th century. In the 19th century, however, they became more socially acceptable as the leisure time of the middle class increased. It has become standard practice for both men and women to pursue activities that would have seemed strange or frivolous a century ago.
At the turn of the 20th century, according to historian Steven Gelber, hobbies “shed the old stigma of eccentricity” and became a way to imbue life with meaning and dignity. With a hobby, people could choose their own goals and progress towards them.