The Disputed Origins Of The Word 'Picnic'

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, society resumed its re-examination of how racism informed even the most banal aspects of day-to-day life. This brought up the claim that the word "picnic" is racist. The claim, as seen in this Facebook post, is that the word "picnic" was created by truncating the expression "pick a" followed by a slur for a Black person. When a person was picked, the argument continued, white people would feast while lynching or immolating the Black person.

There is a strong case to be made for the association. The historian Phillip Dray told Ferris State University that there was historical documentation for lynching crowds drinking and dining while victims were lynched. The most infamous of these occurred in Pennsylvania in 1911, when following a lynching, the crowd indulged in ice cream sundaes. But as strong the association of picnics with lynching is, it is not the real etymology of the word "picnic" itself, according to Dray. 

Picnics originated from something unrelated

Despite the historic examples of people having ice cream sundaes after committing such atrocities, the word "picnic" comes from a separate source. That said, there is an uncanny similarity between the lynching theory and the etymology of the word. Etymonline claims that the word picnic comes from the French word "piquenique," which in turn might be a smashing together of "piquer" and "nique" or "to pick up a worthless thing." The idea is that you pick at small nibbles at a picnic. 

"Piquenique" can be dated to the 1690s. However, picnic's oldest appearance in the written English language seems to be in 1748 when Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son. However, in the letter, he seems to be responding to a now lost letter his son sent to him: "I like the description of your PIC-NIC; where I take it for granted, that your cards are only to break the formality of a circle, and your SYMPOSION intended more to promote conversation than drinking." By the mid-nineteenth century, this novelty was commonplace and new ideas like a picnic basket and a picnic table were introduced as well.

As separate as the origin of the word actually is from America's racist past, Elizabeth Wellington argued in The Philadelphia Inquirer that it is worth keeping in mind the association between the two. We don't necessarily have to stop saying picnic, but the history of the association shouldn't be passed over either.