Believe it or not the adjective cotton-picking comes from Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes cartoons and is used as a general adjective of disapproval, similar to damned. From a 1952 cartoon:
Get your cotton-pickin’ hooks offa me!
Bugs may not have been the first to use it, but he gets credit for first recorded use.
But the noun cottonpicker is older. It dates to around 1919 and refers to a contemptible person. From Joel Chandler Harris’s Dizzed:
What are these boys from the South? Are they cotton-pickers, corn-crackers, stump jumpers, ridge-runners or bog-leapers?
Cottonpicker has also served as a derogatory term for a black person since at least 1930. While cottonpicker has distinct racist overtones, the adjective cotton-picking does not carry them, instead being a reference to the unpleasant nature of the work.1
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 491-92.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton