A repost from July 2014.
From Pacific Standard:
A linguist and top pomologists attempt to answer what should be a simple inquiry. Oddly enough, the answer brings a complicated tale of devil strawberries, insurance companies, inferior fruit, and the messy line between literal and metaphorical interpretation.
It is the uncouth phrase of mid-level managers and meddling consultants: “Let’s pick the low-hanging fruit.”
OK, sure, whatever you say boss.
But unless you live on a orchard, your encounters with real low-hanging fruit don’t actually come too often. Low-hanging fruit seem to be everywhere, and really nowhere at all.
Should you use a metaphorical phrase without fully considering the literal specimens themselves or understanding the depths of its meaning?
The seeds of this question were planted a couple of months ago within the confines of our senior editor’s office, a space we often repair to in the afternoons to discuss media and other miscellany that would never reach a formal staff editorial meeting. Around that time, the Awl had published the personal account of man who claimed to have not consumed fruit for the first 26 years of his life. We were incredulous, but nonetheless intrigued. We were discussing this when we noticed an unidentifiable citrus fruit lying on the shelf of Ryan O’Hanlon’s bookcase. It was too small to be an orange and too round to be a lemon, Nick Jackson, our digital director, remembers. Its hue was strange as well.
Fruit was on the shelf, fruit was also on the Internet, and it was certainly on the mind. It was a near-perfect confluence of events. And then, as if a ripened apple fell from the sky, it happened. A Newtonian moment, if there ever was one. “What is the lowesthanging fruit?” There were chuckles. No one knew.
Of all the low-hanging fruit in the world, is there one variety that hangs the lowest? Is there a fruit out there, so low and so easy to pick, that it should take on some kind of ultimate idiomatic credence?
It seems like a simple enough query, but would there be a simple answer? And how might we even frame the question or judge the result? Is it in measurement from a human’s reach or the ground? Are bush fruits fair game? Does low-hanging fruit just pertain to the lowest individual fruit on a single tree? We’d need to call in experts. In exploring the physical truths, we might learn something about what the metaphor really means.
I promised my colleagues I’d set forth on this curious intellectual quest. And now, I think, I have settled upon a complicated, but very fruitful, conclusion.
IT BECAME QUICKLY APPARENT that this effort would not bear low-hanging fruit.
I contacted eight prominent pomologists. Perhaps somewhat flummoxed by the absurdity or cheekiness of the inquiry, only two responded. But they both had similar conclusions.
According to preeminent fruit expert David Karp, a researcher at University of California-Riverside who’s so knowledgeable about fruit varieties and distinguished in locating new ones that he’s been referred to by the New Yorker as “The Fruit Detective,” there are three ways to define fruit: botanically, culinarily, and horticulturally. Selecting which lens we use for the search would be crucial.
Botanically wouldn’t be the right one because much of what is classified as fruit in that area isn’t consumed by humans. “There’s things that squirrels eat that you and I wouldn’t eat, like acorns and stuff like that, right?” Karp says. The lowest of the botanical fruits are part of an extremely rare form of reproduction known as geocarpy, in which fruits grow or ripen underground. Of those, peanuts, actually, would be the most widely known. But culinarily, no one would ever consider peanuts fruit. And besides, they don’t really hang per se. However, the culinary perspective can muddy the precision of our search too. There are items in our supermarket aisles that are considered fruits that pomologists would scoff at. “I’m on the board of the American Pomological Society and when I featured some melons in our tasting, everybody looked down their nose at me,” Karp says. “‘Those are not melons; they’re actually classified with vegetables horticulturally.’”
Horticulturally is probably the way to go. If we reflect on the meaning of the phrase, it would make sense to consult the perspective of those who actually study the growth and harvesting of fruit.
What hangs lowest to the ground? Strawberries, Karp says. But there is a clear caveat here. “If you ever talk to a strawberry harvester, it’s known as the devil’s fruit because it’s hell to bend down—it really is back-breaking labor,” Karp cautions. And this is where the metaphorical begins to bleed into the literal. “It’s not ‘How low can you go?’ from the picker’s point of view in terms of convenience,” Karp adds. “It’s being at easy-to-grasp level, which depends on the height of the human but you know that would be like three to seven feet for your standard five-and-a-half or six-foot human.” And then, Karp begins to talk about the linguistic origins of the phrase. Low-hanging fruit, classically, was in reference to its position on a tree....MORE