The term has its origins in the method of John Morton (1420-1500), appointed Lord Chancellor
under King Henry VII in 1487, for collecting taxes from the King's noblemen.
On visiting a nobleman's house, Morton would assess their ability to pay taxes, and the amount
they should pay, with the following deviousness:
It may not be the most tortuous logical argument to snare a debtor - even a nobleman... - but
no more than you need when you're the Lord Chancellor to a King who was
none"1, with the backing of the court that was to become the feared and noble-quashing Star Chamber.
More recently, the trap has given its name to a tactic in Bridge, which declarer uses to leave a
defender two options, both disadvantageous, which relates idealogically to the concept of zugzwang, as found in Chess.
Despite the potentially unflattering association (cunning, unfairness, entrapment...) many
caterers and hoteliers have adopted Morton's fork as their company name, on the basis that whatever
you ask for you'll get the highest standards in return, and not that you'll find a hefty service
charge added to your bill.
1. Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII and Selected Works
www.xrefer.com - the premier online reference guide
www.bridgetalk.com/mortons_fork_coup.htm - nifty bridge tactic
www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon40.html - Henry VII
www.partyon.co.uk/pages/morton.htm - a Morton's Fork caterer