No, I might need that someday.  That too.

Dear Word Detective:  I was writing an email today, and used the phrase “cull out.”  Not being sure whether it is used in a positive sense (e.g., “we culled out the interesting documents from the load of old useless invoices”) or a negative one (e.g., “we culled out all the old useless invoices and only left the interesting documents”), I of course checked it online.  The dictionary results seemed to indicate the first option — the Free Dictionary definition is “select desirable parts from a group or list,” with the example “cull out the interesting letters from the poet’s correspondence” — which is how I used it in my email. But when I dug a little deeper later I found many uses in the second way (one good example of many in Google News: “The filters on our computers and systems work overtime to cull out spam”). So now I am confused. Which is correct? Did this phrase start its life in one meaning and then change to mean the opposite, or have I been misled by a free online dictionary? — Yael in Jerusalem.

“Cull” is an ambiguous little word, and the conflict between the sources you cite doesn’t mean either of them is wrong.  As the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Incidentally, “culling,” or the failure to do so, seems to be the topic of the moment here in the US.  The A&E network is carrying a show called “Hoarders,” exploring the cases of dysfunctional packrats who fill their houses with staggering piles of what they wistfully  call “stuff” but the rest of us would consider utterly useless junk.  And the author E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, World’s Fair) has just released a novel based on the story of the Collyer brothers, two wealthy New York City recluses who set the standard for clutter, eventually amassing over 100 tons of rubbish in their Fifth Avenue brownstone.  A quick Google of “Collyer brothers” will illustrate just how far off the rails these guys went, but the phrase “ten grand pianos” pretty much sums it up.

The problem with “to cull” is that in its most basic sense it simply means “to pick out.”  In its earliest uses in English after its appearance in the 14th century, the sense was most often of selecting the best (“To cull out of all the people, those which had best courage,” 1593).  But by the early 18th century, “cull” was being used to mean simply “to subject to the process of selection,” whether to “weed out” the clearly substandard or unwanted, or to skim the “cream of the crop” and dump the rest.  The root of “cull,” incidentally, was the Old French “cuillir,” meaning “to gather, select,” itself derived from the Latin “colligere,” to gather (which also gave us the verb “to collect”).

In standard usage today, there seems to be a slight general tilt toward the use of “cull” to mean “remove and discard the unwanted,” but it’s really a word that can only be judged in context.  After all, the basic process of “culling” is simply one of selection, and doesn’t govern what is done with the things selected.  On the other hand, if you overhear someone from the Human Resources department at your job joking about “culling the herd,” it’s unlikely they’re selecting people to receive cupcakes, and it might be time to tune up your resume.

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