What’s In A Word: Cherry-pick

Whenever I come across  cherry-pick, it catches my attention. But laziness has always always overcome my curiosity about the origin of this word.

Until now.

I was reading an LA Times article about charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are not under the thumb of school district bureaucrats.

Freedom from the rules and regulations that govern public schools comes with a catch: charter schools must deliver results. It’s all spelled out in the school charter.

Opponents claim charter schools succeed at the expense of public schools. An educator in the Times article accused charter school operators of cherry-picking the best students.

That’s quite a visual: cherry-picking the best students. This time I put my newspaper down and went to the online dictionaries to see why cherry-pick is so expressive.

At Dictionary.com I found this:

cher·ry-pick [cher-ee-pik]

–verb (used with object)
1. to select with great care: You can cherry-pick your own stereo components.

–verb (used without object)
2. (in retail use) to buy only the sale items and ignore the other merchandise.

Not satisfied with that bland definition, I went to thefreedictionary.com and discovered a definition closer to my understanding of cherry-pick. Cherry-picking, I think, is not exactly cheating, but pretty damn close.

(tr) to choose or take the best or most profitable of (a number of things), esp for one’s own benefit or gain cherry-pick the best routes

But it was at wisegeek.com that I found an explanation that jibes with my understanding of cherry-pick.

The term cherry picking likely originates with the process of picking fruit from a tree [well, DUH!]. When picking a type of fruit, such as cherries, a person might search for only the best cherries, such as those that are the healthiest. By only picking the best cherries, another person who sees the harvest might make the incorrect assumption that all cherries on the tree are as healthy.

The charter school opponent picked the perfect way to describe his beef with charter schools.

He went on to say, “Each child is unique. Some cherries are bigger than others. Some riper. Some slower to mature. Some easier to bruise and faster to spoil.”

Individual attention, not cherry-picking, is a better way to raise a school’s performance levels in reading and math. All students benefit.

Wisegeek has a full explanation of cherry-pick in all its connotations. Check it out here.

The wording on this poster I found on the web better describes "pettifogging" (definition below) than cherry-picking. Here's my new definition of cherry-picking: to achieve unearned success by preselecting only the best. A related expression is "stack the deck" -- to manipulate events, information, etc., especially unethically, in order to achieve an advantage or desired result.

 verb (used without object), -fogged, -fog·ging.

  1. to bicker or quibble over trifles or unimportant matters.
  2. to carry on a petty, shifty, or unethical law business.
  3. to practice chicanery of any sort

One way to stop cherry picking. Or is it a metaphor for kids (all kids, not just the best students) trapped in public schools where school district bureaucrats forbid innovation by parents, teachers and principals?


One thought on “What’s In A Word: Cherry-pick

  1. sblazak says:

    Just read this in the Sacramento Bee: “Cherry-picking clean-air laws at the ballot box is not likely to perpetuate success because air pollution control is a mosh pit of arcane specialties, including engineering, epidemiology, chemistry, law, physics, toxicology and economics – arguably the most complex undertaking in government.”

    Another example of casting “cherry-picking” in a negative light.

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