The Daily Telegraph told its British readers at the end of July 2001 that “The computer downturn has also forced Infineon Technologies, the German semiconductor maker, to start culling 5,000 from its workforce”. Visions of extreme measures by managers came to mind for a moment, but then a reality check kicked in.
The current popularity of this figurative sense (by no means new, at least across the Atlantic) lies in part with Britain’s agricultural disaster of recent months, in which millions of cattle and sheep have had to be killed in an attempt to stem the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. News reporters seem to have decided early on that cull was a good strong, agricultural-sounding word that had the happy additional advantage of avoiding using emotive words like kill or slaughter. But when they write things like “A million unwanted lambs may need to be culled”, they are stretching the word well beyond its normal sense.
They are presumably thinking of the more traditional type of cull employed by wildlife managers. The idea here is that a proportion of animals are killed, often the old and infirm ones, so leaving the remaining population on average fitter and of higher quality, better able to survive on the food available in the wild. The word has, though, taken on a strongly pejorative sense with phrases like seal cull and badger cull, in which many people consider the intentions of the slaughterers to be suspect and any killing to be wrong.
The word comes through French from Latin colligere, to gather together — we get collect from it, too. Its first sense in English was of choosing or selecting, by implication picking out the best from a group (you could cull great pieces of literature to make an anthology, for example, or you might even cull the strawberry patch for the best fruit).
The sense of selection in animal husbandry appeared in the latter part of the nineteenth century, at first in Australia and New Zealand, but then more widely. It seems to have evolved from the idea of selecting the best animals from a herd, as a buyer of livestock might do, but then extended to slaughtering the weaker ones. The culled beasts were then the ones that had been killed. Its application to wildlife only appeared in the 1930s.
The key to all the senses usually given in dictionaries is the word selective. It could be that the managers in that German semiconductor factory were picking out the least competent people to dismiss, but anyone who has been in that situation knows that’s rarely the reason for choosing who stays and who goes. No, it’s just a fashionable addition to that ever-increasing list of terms for firing people — with the added implication of a mass disposal. In the foot-and-mouth outbreak the element of selection isn’t there, either, since farmers don’t have a choice about which animals are slaughtered — if one goes, all go.
So cull has shifted sense from “selection of the best” to “mass disposal”. Not a good move, you may feel.