Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Cherry picking clichés


We are all warned to avoid clichés in writing, but where do they come from? Take cherry picking for example. It has grown to mean selecting particular specimens or events, or giving special attention to one aspect of something above others. Have you ever picked cherries? We have five cherry trees, so I have experience.
One branch of the cherry tree before picking -
 a definitely nibbled cherry towards the bottom left
The first thing to say is that unless you take special measures to cover the trees, the blackbirds and magpies will pick all the cherries. Almost worse than that, they peck holes in the fruit so when the cherries finally get ripe they're half spoiled. You can see that in one of the cherries near the camera in the picture. None of this activity chimes with the way the phrase 'cherry picking' gets used.
I have built a massive metal cage around our biggest tree so that the whole thing can be covered in a net. This entailed going on a welding course and buying sixty quid's worth of steel and spending a similar amount on nets. Not a cheap option, but it does at least lead to a harvest of ripe unspoiled cherries. So does cherry picking summon up in your mind several hours of welding, antirust painting and vast struggles to get the edifice to stand and not fall over; plus of course twice a year balancing fifteen feet up a step ladder dragging thirty feet of netting into places it doesn't want to go?
That is the reality of cherry growing; the picking is something different. Cherries grow in irregular bunches and hang down under the leaves where they are often hard to see. If you just pull them off the tree, you can damage it and cause disease. The best technique is to use scissors, and snip the stems and have the cherry fall off into a basket that you hold underneath, while of course balancing up a ladder.
Bear in mind that you have to get the ladder into the tree to a significant extent because the fruit isn't just found at the ends of the branches. While you are struggling to hold the basket in the right place and snipping with the other hand the wind blows neighbouring branches into your eyes. Whatever you do don't step back, the ground is a long way down.
Just a few of the almost 20 kilos we picked this year
The reward for all this perilous activity is ripe cherries, followed by cherry pies and ice-cream and if you freeze them a whole year of taste explosions and delight. Fabulous, but still not what the cliché has come to mean.
So, where does the phrase get it's meaning? Possibly it comes from the fact that cherries tend to ripen at slightly different rates, so early in the season there are often bunches with one ripe cherry and several around it that are not ready. In those circumstances, you do have to just pick the ripe ones. If you don't invest in nets or other means of keeping the birds at bay, then cherry picking cherries, in the cliché terms, is what you have to do. It's a poor deal because the birds have all day to sit and do nothing except watch your cherries and pick the moment to grab. If you can leave them alone, if your tree is under a net, then there comes a time where they are all ripe together. Picking them at that point is much more rewarding.
Seen from the point of view of blackbirds and magpies, cherry picking means sitting around all day and grabbing the best fruit before the rightful owner dashes out to scare you off. Closer to the usual meaning I guess.

So there we have it, using a cliché is a bad idea because, not only is it lazy writing, but it may not mean what you think. Worse still, you may be mistaken for a sneaky blackbird or a thieving magpie.

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