To cherry-pick is to opportunistically choose the most beneficial or profitable items. The verb, which usually has a hyphen, can have negative connotations. For example, we might accuse someone of intellectual dishonesty if they cherry-pick details in support of an argument while ignoring a preponderance of details that would counter the cherry-picked ones. But it can be positive, too. For instance, in planning next week’s meals, you might cherry-pick good deals at the grocery store.
The OED lists early instances of cherry-pick in this figurative sense from the 1960s and 70s,1 though cherry-picker, denoting a person who selects only the best items, goes back to the 40s.2 In our own searches, virtually every instance of cherry-pick and related words from before 1980 refers to either actual cherries or machines that elevate workers for access to high things. Many early instances of the figurative sense relate to sports.
When even the cherry-picked studies failed to show a statistically significant correlation, it changed its methodology from the standard 95 percent to 90 percent. [Harlan Daily Enterprise (1998)]
Scientists warn the nation’s most promising technology firms could be cherry-picked by their American competitors under the Australia-United States free trade agreement. [The Age (2004)]
O’Reilly cherry-picked census numbers to falsely suggest Bush is better on Poverty than Clinton [Media Matters (2005)]
Production is up only 28 percent in that regard, so it appears the Obama campaign has cherry-picked data to create an extra-sunny narrative. [Washington Post Fact Checker blog (2012) ]
Did Bell Labs just use its financial resources to cherry-pick the best brains of MIT? [Wall Street Journal (2012)]