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They are the pick of a bad lot.

This is a sentence from a 1892 novel. What does that mean?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

It means "they" are the best (of their kind) that could be found, but that doesn't mean they are very good. It is like saying "this wine is the best of a poor vintage" or that someone is "the smartest one in the remedial program": hardly a compliment. Such a statement could also be called "damning with faint praise."

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It might not be intended as faint praise (can't tell without context). It might be simply a statement of fact, as in "This is the best we could get from the choices available" or "This was the lesser of two evils" or "I'm discussing the winners of the most recent election". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 2 '10 at 14:01
    
The winners of an election aren't always a bad lot -are they? –  TimLymington Jun 13 '11 at 22:23
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