Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Cherry-picking is an art best left to editors

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YEAR

"We have organizers on the ground in all 10 states," said Mary Beth Cahill, campaign manager for Senator John Kerry, just before the Super Tuesday primaries. "We are not cherry-picking."

In a piece about how few congressional races this year were truly competitive, Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call that "Democrats would have a hard time cherry-picking enough districts to get to 218 in the House," which would give them a majority.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson criticized the Bush administration's withdrawal of support for former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide as "cherry-picking" leadership for Haitians. Meanwhile, half a world away, The Australian led a piece with, "The government has `cherry-picked' intelligence that suited it as it rushed headlong into war, opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said yesterday."

Why this sudden political fascination with the sweet or tart fruit of the family Rosaceae of the genus Prunus? Because there is no better metaphor to describe "to select the best or most profitable" than this trope of choosing to lift off the cherry that often adorns the top of a cake.

Etymologists should not be misled by early uses as a noun applied literally to people who harvest cherries from trees or even lift them off cakes. Nor is it rooted in the sobriquet of the British 11th Hussars Regiment, known as "the Cherry-Pickers," which in 1814 included some men taken from outpost duty in a Spanish fruit garden; later they wore distinctive crimson trousers and hats.

The noun may have been derived from US railway slang or from a hydraulic crane used for overhead work. Railroad Magazine in 1940 defined a cherry picker as a "switchman, so called because of red lights on switch stands. Also any railroad man who is always figuring on the best jobs and sidestepping undesirable ones [based on the old allusion `Life is a bowl of cherries']." That suspected allusion strikes me as far-fetched; as the lyricist Lew Brown wrote in his song of that name in 1931, "Don't take it serious; it's too mysterious."

As a compound gerund, the metaphor took hold with a sinister overtone in 1965, when an ad in The New York Times described the book The Great Discount Delusion as including "baiting-and-switching" and "creaming and cherry-picking." A year later, The Times of London quoted a diplomat: "The agreement is now in force. We cannot cherry-pick it."

In that form of compound verb, cherry-pick was adopted in sports to describe a basketball player waiting near a basket who takes a pass and makes an easy shot. It found a function in the business world as well: Dana Gioia, the poet and former marketing executive who is now the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, recalls a 1985 usage by Sam Tune, a General Foods colleague, reporting on difficulties with nonstandard sizes of Kool-Aid, who sadly told his fellow executives, "This year our soft-drink distribution has been majorly cherry-picked."

Liberal intelligentsia

At a time when the primary meaning of intelligence has moved in some minds from "the capacity to acquire knowledge" to "the secrets we are spending billions of dollars a year on to learn," the Russo-English word intelligentsiya is making a comeback.

"We're going to lose much of the liberal intelligentsia," Ralph Nader said, as many of his longtime supporters denounced the announcement of his independent candidacy for president on the theory that he would subtract votes from the Democratic candidate. Asked about the caustic Nader comment, David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, a traditionally leftist publication that had cautioned Nader not to run, responded, "I don't mind being in such a club."

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