I have long pondered the motive with which Michael Wharton, for long the author of the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple column, gave a memorable detail in his second volume of memories, A Dubious Codicil, about the habits of his rival Colin Welch: ‘He had a habit of picking his nose, occasionally tasting the extracted mucus or “bogey”, without any attempt to conceal himself, as most people would, behind a newspaper.’ Since they are both dead, I am unlikely to find out.
But I have been piqued recently by another kind of pick, mostly relating to Donald Trump, and now spilling over into British affairs. The choice for one of his cabinet posts was widely called a pick, even by British correspondents.
There was Trump’s ‘pick for ambassador to Israel’, ‘his pick for secretary of energy’, and, as a Guardian headline ran: ‘Health secretary pick Price pressed at hearing on stock deals’. Pick refers to the person chosen, not, as we have long used it, the act of picking. Like the verbal doublet pick and choose, we had, in the 18th century, the noun doublet pick and choice. In that peculiar novel, The Fool of Quality by Henry Brooke, written in the 1760s, a character speaks of having ‘my pick and choice of all the young and handsome Earls’.
Pick is productive of idioms. Things may be picking up in business, but a pick-up joint is a different sphere of activity. A pick-me-up might make you feel better, but to pick yourself up and dust yourself down relies on motivation. Picking up the bill is unlike picking up the slack. A pick is often related to watching television. The Times has a ‘TV pick of the week’, and the Daily Mirror a ‘Pick of the day’.
The kind of pick that Mr Trump names derive from the language of American football or baseball. The term seems a recent coinage, not used before 1948. ‘Rams’ top rookie pick discharged,’ ran a headline in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern in 1952.
Just as Americans have picks and we have choices, so they may be picky and we choosy. But picks are crossing the Atlantic meaning to stay, not just for a state visit.