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It’s a turkey shoot

What do you call the killing of a huge number of birds? A British outbreak of the H5N1 strain of “bird flu” (itself an oddly cutesy name for a virus that may become fatally pandemic in humans) has prompted the killing of 159,000 turkeys, reported in the news as a “cull”. A reader has written in to wonder about the origin of this euphemism, noting that the primary sense of “to cull” is to select. This is indeed the first meaning given in OED, which notes that “cull” comes from the Old French cueillir, to collect, gather or select, and offers George Crabbe’s definition of good literary style:

1807 Words aptly culled, and meanings well exprest.

We are also given examples such as culling strawberries, culling quotations from a book, and culling knowledge, or even culling the most courageous men from society (not so as to kill them). Indeed, even when applied to animals, to “cull” seems originally to have meant to select the ones you want:

1929 There were a few lean, dejected cattle, the best of them having been culled out hours before [by buyers].

But, confusingly, what was left when you had culled or culled out what you wanted had sometimes been called, since 1611, the “culling” or “cullings”. And apparently via usage of the term in forestry (to throw out a log that will not make good timber is to “cull” it, in 1904), the verb “to cull” itself came to have its emphasis inverted, so that it meant selecting what you wanted to discard, rather than to keep. Its first use in the context of killing unwanted animals comes in 1934, and is then ironically acknowledged here:

1964 The experimental shooting of hippo – culling is the polite conservation term for it – had begun.

You might think the killing of 159,000 turkeys is rather too indiscriminate to be sufficiently faithful to the selective meaning of “cull”, though I suppose the appeal is to the national turkey flock as a whole, of which 159,000 birds may be considered a (potentially) diseased part, to be eliminated for the health of the rest – and, more importantly, for the health of humans. Still, “cull” is a peculiar sort of euphemism, because it is only one vowel-sound away from being homophonous with what it is euphemising, “kill”.

The BBC’s report wobbles strangely between euphemism and directness: birds are “culled”, to “dispose of” them or to “get rid of” them; though there is also talk of a “means of extermination”, a “slaughter”, and a way to “kill” them – indeed, the most “humane method”. What is this most humane method of disposing of birds?

Mobile gas chambers were delivered to the Holton farm over the weekend. All 159,000 turkeys will be placed into crates, “forklifted” into the chambers and gassed to death.

None more humane. In some ways, this represents a logical end to the lives of battery-farmed animals. Personally, I am sufficiently speciesist to consider the life of just one human being worth more than the lives of 159,000 turkeys. Nonetheless, like other euphemisms of industrial agriculture (such as beak “trimming”), the word “cull” comfortingly unspeaks the reality on which many roast dinners depend.

  1. 1  Gus  February 6, 2007, 3:55 pm 

    The issue isnt whether 159,000 Turkoids are worth one human. The question is whether we degrade ourselves by manufacturing food this way.

    Seperately, and more ‘Unspeakly’, have you considered the deliciousness of the use of the term the ‘national flock’ to describe millions of living things crammed into too-few cubic centimeters and force fed other poultry bits?

    Have Turkeys replaced the Queen Mum in the national consciousness? Could they?

    Steven, I think we should be told.

  2. 2  Steven  February 6, 2007, 3:58 pm 

    Ah, “national flock”, the downy emblem of our soft yet soaring country.

    Yes, you are quite right!

  3. 3  bastion  February 6, 2007, 6:53 pm 

    I interviewed a Forestry Commissioner recently, and he used the similiarly ambiguous word “dispatch” to describe how he’d put down an injured horse that morning.

    I think that, in this case, his language wasn’t borne of any attempt to belittle or distort the reality of the animal’s death, it was just the case of a man who genuinely cared about animal life talking modestly and respectfully about something that was a depressingly regular part of his life.

  4. 4  Steven  February 7, 2007, 12:40 am 

    I don’t know much about horses, but have noted that it is often reported that a horse “had to be destroyed” after, say, falling over during a race. Is a broken leg really fatal to a horse, or is it rather that no one wants to go to the expense of looking after it?

  5. 5  Gwynn Dujardin  February 7, 2007, 12:51 am 


    I would comment more (I grew up around horses), but am down with the flu myself, and unable to make it any further out of the gate.

  6. 6  Steven  February 7, 2007, 1:04 am 

    I do hope you haven’t been hanging out with any British turkeys recently. Get well soon!

  7. 7  Gwynn Dujardin  February 7, 2007, 2:17 am 

    I’m going to leave that last comment alone, lest I get myself in a hen-house of trouble . . .


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