Hobbling and Cobbling

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I could hardly believe my ears this morning when I heard a highly educated author being interviewed on NPR about a new book. A graduate of two prestigious Eastern universities, the author talked about “hobbling together” a political alliance.

She meant “cobbling together.”

Naturally, I hopped on the Web to see if anyone else was misusing this common expression. The following examples indicate that quite a few speakers are:

I could barely hobble together some clips from wagnaria some audio from hockey highlights and some sound effects in Imovie

That is the big flaw with my car – a VW. No cupholders except for one for the back seat. I’ve had to hobble together aftermarket bits to hold my coffee. 

I finally had the time to hobble together an open source version of the headless Raspberry Pi config interface I’ve been working on.

It’s not just the tweeters and the bloggers:

Eagan’s head coach Mike Taylor had to hobble together a line-up after losing both first line wings to injury the night before.

Global markets – USA: Bruised computer giants hobble together –(headline over a story about a Compaq-HP merger)

I even found the altered expression in printed books. Here’s one example:

The Babylonian cosmos, or at least the picture of it that scholars have managed to hobble together over the last two centuries, presents us with a scene by now quite familiar to the reader

Used figuratively, the expression “to cobble together” means “To put together or join roughly or clumsily, usually from bits and pieces of whatever materials are available.

The verb cobble, of unknown origin, already had the meaning of “to mend clumsily” or “to patch up” in the 15th century. In the 16th century it was used to describe the mending of shoes; a cobbler was a mender of shoes. Shakespeare plays with the word cobble in Act One, scene one of Julius Caesar (1599); a cheeky commoner offers to “cobble” a tribune.

Here are some examples of the expression being used correctly:

Freelancers cobble together part-time jobs to make ‘portfolio careers’

Adjunct Professors Try to Cobble Together a Full Workload

BJP hopes to cobble together alliance in TN

Lower Makefield officials cobble together $3.5M to pay judgment in eminent domain case involving golf course land

The expression “to hobble” means to fasten an animal’s feet together to prevent it from straying. Figuratively, it means to impede someone or something. For example, a lack of money could hobble a company’s efforts to bring out a new product.

Here are some examples from the web in which hobble is used correctly:

U.S. says global effort has hobbled a cybercrime ring

Lewisville zoning extension effort hobbled in N.C. House

Markets hobbled by low volatility

Teaching Your Horse to Stand Hobbled

If something is being put together from bits and pieces, it’s being cobbled together.

If something is being crippled, it’s being hobbled.

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11 thoughts on “Hobbling and Cobbling”

  1. “If something is being crippled, it’s being hobbled.” Indeed – but it (particularly a racehorse) could also be nobbled.

  2. Hobble has another meaning: walk in an awkward way, typically because of pain from an injury.
    “he was hobbling around on crutches”
    synonyms: limp, walk with difficulty, walk lamely, move unsteadily, walk haltingly; shamble, totter, dodder, stagger, falter, stumble, lurch
    “Luke hobbled into the post office”

    It still doesn’t fit how it was used.

  3. In your example, “Global markets – USA: Bruised computer giants hobble together “, I wonder if the word they were searching for was “huddle” rather than “cobble”? Just a thought.

  4. One to two dictionary editions from now, “cobble” will be listed as an alternate definition for “hobble.”
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When a shift in meaning comes out of cultural change, or makes a language more colorful or more expressive, it is the sign of a living language.
    When a shift comes out of nothing but ignorance and laziness, it is bad, and should be resisted.

  5. I’m glad that you brought this up. I believe that I heard the same interview and that that word caught my attention.

  6. @ApK:When a shift comes out of nothing but ignorance and laziness, it is bad, and should be resisted.
    I agree. And this is that.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this a bit and wonder if we’re being to harsh in some cases.

    If “hobbling” is the act of tying an animals feet together to make it move less effectively, then might it not be a reasonable figurative use to mean to put other things together in a way that results in something less than optimally effective?

    I’m not saying that any of the misuse example above gave it that much thought, but it does open the possibility that some mis-users knew what they were doing, intentionally mixing the “awkward result” aspect of “hobble” with the “crudely assembled” of “cobble.”

    “Here, I’ve cobbled your shoes for you.”
    “Ow! Now I can’t even walk in them. You’re not a cobbler, you’re a hobbler!”


  8. ApK,
    You are being too kind. The use of “hobble” for “cobble” is ignorance, pure and simple.

    After the post ran, I heard an NPR employee who had just returned from Cuba say that the Cubans keep old American cars from the 40s and 50s running by “hobbling and cobbling them together.”

  9. I’m sure you’re right.
    Perhaps it was the example at the top of the article about “hobbling together” a political alliance.
    “Hobbled” is a word that often comes to my mind when various politicians try to work together. I thought maybe it was Freudian slip in that case.

  10. I have heard the term hobble be used in discussing tethering of two programs such that it effectively reduced the optimal performance charateristics of both programs. Thus the resulting cobbling of the two progams also limited or hobbled their performance.

  11. I just used “cobble together” on Quora, then immediately ran a Google search to make sure I don’t sound stupid. Not sounding stupid ought to be a priority for writers.

    I’d also like to note that one might find oneself “robbled” of their cheeseburgers.

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