Brow Beat

Sophie’s Choice and Other Choice Choices

At the White House’s daily media briefing Tuesday, spokesman Jay Carney said that a failure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling would force the government to make “a kind of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ ” regarding which bills to pay and which to drop. What, exactly, does that mean?

Sophie’s Choice is the title of a 1979 novel by William Styron, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to decide which of her two children will live and which will die. (Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar for her starring role in the 1982 film version.) Now, the phrase has become shorthand for a terrible choice between two difficult options, and lawmakers love dropping it as a dramatic allusion in debates over budget dilemmas in all areas—from renewable energy and arts funding to education and food stamps.                                                            


Bonus choices:

Hobson’s Choice: A situation where one may choose the thing that is offered or else take nothing at all. After Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), an English mail carrier who rented horses and, to avoid overtiring his animals, told his customers that they could take the horse nearest the stable door or no horse at all.

Fielder’s Choice: In baseball, a play in which the fielder chooses to put out another player rather than the batter, allowing the batter to reach first base safely.

USDA Choice: The second-highest beef grade offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. Choice beef has less marbling than the highest-grade beef, known as USDA Prime.

Taster’s Choice: A brand of instant coffee owned by Nestlé; now sold as “Nescafé Taster’s Choice.” In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Taster’s Choice in the U.K. was responsible for the most romantic hot-beverage commercials ever made.


People’s Choice Awards: A pop culture awards show held annually since 1975; winners are selected by the general public. Categories include Favorite On-Screen Team, Favorite TV Crime Fighter, and Favorite Viral Video Star.

Buck Dancer’s Choice: The flip side of “ladies’ choice.” According to the jacket of Taj Mahal’s 1973 album Oooh So Good ‘n’ Blues—quoted in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics—it’s “a tune that goes back to Saturday-night dances, when the Buck, or male partner, got to choose who his partner would be.”

—with Stephen Spencer Davis and Brahna Siegelberg