Cotton Picking

Meanings of “Cotton Picking”

The phrase “cotton picking” means disapproval. However, it is mostly used in the sense of ‘damned’ with severe intensity. Hence, it is a somewhat derogatory term.

Origin of “Cotton Picking”

The phrase “cotton picking” is stated to have originated in the South of the United States where this tradition was quite common during the 17th century. However, later, a Dixier term cottonpicker came into existence to connote racial slurs. The first print citation of this phrase has been used in Letters of J & E Pettigrew who published them in 1795 where it goes thus: “One of the students was banished… for going to a cotton picking.”

Examples in Literature

Example #1

The Cotton Picker by Sambanath Denis

Picking the cotton, pick pick pick!
Sharp prickles cut my hands,
Blood leaves my palms quick, quick quick!
My heart pangs for a lost home-land,
Tears hug my cheeks, drip drip drip!
I put my pain away, hide my eyes,
Keep working, lest I am whip, whip whipped!

This short poem sheds light on the profession of cotton picking, presenting the speaker in the first person to show that constant cotton picking has rather pricked his palms. However, he needs to be quick, or else he may be whipped. The poem subtly alludes to slavery in the United States. The phrase might be considered as an extended metaphor for the people who were damned due to slavery and beatings.

Example #2

Cotton Picking in the Old South by Elton Camp

“Mamie stood and stretched.  Two hours of intense picking put a goodly amount of cotton in her sack.  A skilled gatherer, she used both hands at the same time.  At each grab, she emptied the four or five compartments of the open boll.  She turned around and lifted the sack.  A couple of hard shakes put the cotton toward the closed end.  To complain never entered her mind.  Picking cotton was an essential part of life. She silently rubbed her burning knees.  After a full day, her fingers became sore next to the cuticle from contact with the hard, sharp burrs.   A bonnet and long sleeves protected her from serious sunburn.”

Borrowed from Cotton Picking in the Old South, this passage sheds light on the role of Mamie as a cotton picker in a literal sense. She works very hard to earn her living through this profession, for she is skillful in it. It has rather become part and parcel of her life, for if she does not, she cannot live. The paragraph shows the phrase used in its positive and not pejorative sense.

Example #3

Peach Picking Time in Georgia by Merle Haggard

When it’s peach picking time in Georgia
Apple picking time in Tennessee
Cotton picking time in Mississippi
Everybody picks on me
When it’s roundup

This stanza is related to cotton picking to several other such tasks going on the ranches of different American states such as Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee. The negativity of the phrase seems removed through the use of other professionals with it such as apple picking and peach picking.

Example #4

The Cotton-pickers by B. Traven

This novel by B. Traven explores the cotton pickers’ lives in the Mexican ranches during the 1920s. Gales, an American, is engaged in cotton picking but he starts creating unions wherever he works; be it a bakery, an oil well, or even a ranch. His rebellious attitude infused the spirit of unionism in the workers which prove a great way to spread the word of freedom. The novel shows the positivity and democratic values through cotton pickers. Therefore, the phrase seems to have been explained through an extended metaphor.

Example in Sentences

Example #1: “He really does not like your cotton picking, as he still lives in the old colonial age, thinking that he is the new generation of the new ideas.”

Example #2: “When John Steinbeck wrote several short stories for cotton pickers, showing them cotton picking, he alludes to their job as the best one in the world.”

Example #3: “After fulfilling his cotton picking desire of working with the poor, he simply entered the fields and started making a noise that he has done most of the hard work, while the rest were taking rest under the trees.”

Example #4: “After moving on the road, I entered the cotton fields to do cotton picking but find that there is nothing left for me to do the picking task.”

Example #5: “When he appears before the rancher, he seems haggard and woebegone but when he appears in the field, he is the best cotton picking boy.”