Tuesday, August 22, 2017


The Picnic by George Goodwin Kilburne

Well, I was all set to write another post on Guam, which turns out to be a much bigger subject than I thought, when I fell over this word. I was doing a little Spanish review on Duolingo when I came across a question where you were supposed to translate the English word picnic into Spanish. Turns out the Spanish word for picnic is, uh,  pĂ­cnic. Yes, there's an accent mark over the first i, but otherwise, it's the same. Obviously a loan word. Okay, so where does it come from in the first place?

Turns out, I'd fallen into a bit of a stink hole. Not that there's anything wrong with the word "picnic". It's just that it turns out a lot of people find it suspect. 

First things first. It seems to have come from the French word piquenique. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it's first seen in print in English in Chesterfield's "Letters" in 1748. The French sense, which became the English sense had initially nothing to do with eating outdoors, but meant something more like what we would now call a potluck. Oh, I forgot--a fashionable potluck. The origin of piquenique is a bit unclear, but pique may have meant "to pick or peck", while nique may have meant some "worthless thing", and come from the German. In any case, you get the drift. 

But imagine my surprise when my first search led me directly to a  Snopes report. Huh? Well, it turns out that a rumor has spread that "picnic" derives from a connection with American lynchings. World Wide Words delineates a spurious etymology which I can't repeat here, but basically people believed it because there are historical pictures of people taking picnics to lynchings. So, though the etymology is false, the association isn't. 

Just because it's a false etymology doesn't mean that it contains no grain of truth. 

The 1893 public lynching of black teenager Henry Smith in Paris, Texas


  1. Nice to see this post; I had not checked in in a while, and it seemed to me you had been posting less than you once did, that you were not nearly as ignorant as you once were--My loss!

    I fund that spurious etymology of picnic alarming, since it's so characteristic of the ease with which people, some presumably intelligent, let their guard down and spread unverified bushwah on social media. One reason I so rarely comment or post on political subjects is that stupidity from people with whose options I agree bothers me so much more than the same from people whose opinions I oppose.

    I seem to have got away from the subject at hand, don't I?

  2. Thanks, Peter. Never fear, the ignorance never runs out on this end. I had just gotten involved with some other writing projects and also having some computer problems, so couldn't manage to fit it in. Hoping to change that now.

    I agree, and have probably shared some misinformation myself now and then. Having learned some lessons, I do try to share more reputable news sources. I think more troubling, and I definitely include myself here is not so much about that as reacting too quickly to some piece of news without considering it in full. I will say that I rarely do that on this blog, as "looking into things" seems to lead to more and more angles on it, rather than less. I am in the middle of what I hope will be several posts on Guam, which is a prime example of that, but this came up and seemed a little more manageable.

  3. "while nique may have meant some "worthless thing", and come from the German" - I do not know exactly which German word nique relates to, maybe "nichts" = nothing?
    But I have another meaning: In my work we have a saying that picnic means "problem in chair, not in computer" - which is often true.

  4. Well, I will certainly defer to you on the German, Eva! Yes, I think that they can only trace the word back to French sources and then its true beginnings get lost in the mists of time. But it definitely did not originate in the American South.

    I love the work definition of "picnic". Going to remember that one. All things considered, my associations to picnic are never going to be quite the same.

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