cull

With this word, I may get an image of cupping or curling the hand to carefully take aside some selection, but I may also get an image of killing and counting skulls. When you put a cull in your sack, is it a treasure lovingly collected or an excess head cut off?

The meaning is on one level the same: selecting and removing. But what the removing is done for, and what is done with what is taken and what is left, is the point of variability here. One may commonly hear on the one hand of culling information or stories, and on the other hand of culling animals from herds. Ah, indeed, one hand keepeth and the other tosseth away. The meanings run in parallel like ll, but one retains like a cup sitting up u and the other drains like a tipped cup c.

Cull is cognate with French cueillir, coming from Latin colligere; the origins denote selecting, collecting, choosing, gathering. So the hand that cups and keeps came first – a sense you may see in older poetry is particularly that of gathering flowers: “What hand but would a garland cull For thee who art so beautiful?” as Wordsworth wrote. Oh, yes, cut them with a sickle, and so cull them, but lovingly, those calla lilies and luculia, to colour the culler, that gentleman caller, and the gal he’s coolly calling on. How could such a cull be culpable?

But of course we flower up the less pleasant things as well, to seem perhaps less cold and calculating or at least less callous. Those capering caribou we cull for the sake of the tundra, they too are selected, plucked from their surroundings, perhaps, like flowers, decapitated, their capitals placed on display – though on some manly wall, not in a dainty vase.

And when we cull information, do we do it to keep what we cull, or to keep the remainder? And do we take the cull and display it, or discard it, or put it to use? Well, it’s your call.

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