Pharma Giant To Cull 3,000, so ran the sombre headline. That was a sign that 3,000 employees were facing the threat of retrenchment. But cull, which ominously keeps recurring in corporate news, has not always been a menacing word. It was originally a benign, poetic word. It is cognate with the French cueillir, which means to pick flowers from the garden, to gather grapes. By association, it came to mean the selection of something that was valuable, even precious. You can cull gems, you can cull berries. You can even cull poems from literature. Beauty, romance, gaiety were evoked when the word was used. Tennyson wrote about “whitest honey in fairy gardens cull’d”. In short, culling was associated with one’s favourite things.
And then something happened to the word. A dark and sinister connotation began to build around it. The transition to this new meaning can be seen in Dryden’s lines: “From his herd he culls,/Four, for slaughter, from the fairest of his bulls.” Here, the word has moved from its earlier pleasant meaning half-way towards a sinister one. The cull was not for the purpose of preserving and cherishing the animals; the fairest of them were selected to be slaughtered for a sacrifice and a celebration.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, while retaining its use in literary contexts, cull came to be used in the context of animal farming, To cull meant to select livestock according to their quality. Animals of inferior quality were to be rejected. There were two reasons for culling animals—one was to check their growing population, and the second was to check genetic defects from passing to the offspring.
It was the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis in the UK that brought the word into media headlines. Around seven million sheep and cows were culled before the disease was brought under control. Contiguous culling was another measure: It meant the killing of infected animals within 24 hours, and animals in contiguous farms in 48 hours.
Avian flu was the next epidemic to cause panic. In 1997, there was an outbreak in Hong Kong, and the entire poultry of the territory was culled. China, Vietnam and Thailand have been ravaged by the epidemic. Several millions of chickens and ducks have been culled. On 21 March 2006, the total number of confirmed human deaths since 2003 stood at 184. The number was rising, and WHO warned that culling was the only way of controlling the devastation that was sweeping across Asia.
Can the word cull relate to human lives? The answer, sad to say, is yes. Between the two World Wars of the last century, scientists propounded eugenics as a sound theory, and Nazi scientists legitimized it. Hitler ordered the Aryanization of the German population by a culling of non-Aryans. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, declared that Nazism was “applied biology”.
Not satisfied with relocation and selective breeding, Hitler ordered his men to seek the Final Solution. His special squads entered Soviet territory and killed more than one million Jews. But even his hard-core killers found it barbaric to shoot at women and children and so a ‘cleaner’ mode of killing was sought. This led to the infamous gas van killings. The victims, who were culled for slaughter, were bundled into vans, and a killer gas was pumped into the closed space. In 1940-41, more than 70,000 men and women were transported into killing camps like Auschwitz and liquidated. Survivors had to wait till 1945, when Allied troops who liberated the extermination camps called to them: “You are now free. Come out.” But 1.5 million Jewish victims had died as part of Hitler’s Final Solution. The Fuehrer was unrepentant, and wrote in Mein Kampf: “When I defend myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
After Hitler, the name of Milosevic comes to mind. Kosovo was witness to an ethnic cull that matched the holocaust in cruelty, though not in magnitude. Milosevic dreamed of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, cleansed of its non-Serbian population. The Auschwitz massacre was re-enacted in Srebrenica. Eight thousand Muslims, some of them as young as 14, were killed in that town in July 1995. Open fields were turned into mass graves. Ethnic cleansing and ethnic cull became part of official policy. When Milosevic died in his cell, media headlines read: ‘The Butcher of the Balkans dies’!
It is some consolation to note that cull, when used in business contexts today, does not involve violence or bloodshed. The employers would probably call it downsizing or cutback, while the media would still prefer the four-letter word!
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to email@example.com