Old Wives' Tales
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Toxin du jour
Claim: 'Picnic' was a shortening of 'pick a nigger' and referred to an outdoor community gathering during which families ate from box lunches while a randomly-chosen black man was hanged for the diners' entertainment.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1999]
Origins: Specious etymologies seem to be all the rage of late, and this wild claim about 'picnic' fits that trend. You'll be heartened to know 'picnic' has nothing to do with lynching blacks (or anyone else, for that matter).
'Picnic' began life as a 17th-century French word — it wasn't even close to being an American invention. A 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage mentions 'piquenique' as being of recent origin marks the first appearance of the word in print. As for how the French came by this new term, it was likely
The first documented appearance of the term outside the French language occurred in 1748, but it was 1800 or thereabouts before anyone can prove it made it into the English language. Even then, it still wasn't in America — it was in England.
Originally, the term described the element of individual contribution each guest was supposed to make towards the repast, as everyone who had been invited to social events styled as "picnics" was expected to turn up bearing a dish to add to the common feast. This element was picked up in other 'picnic' terms, such as 'picnic society,' which described gatherings of the intelligentsia where everyone was expected to perform or in some other way contribute to the success of the evening.
Over time, the meaning of the word shifted to emphasize an alfresco element that had crept into the evolving concept of what such gatherings were supposed to be. Nowadays one thinks of a picnic as a casual meal partaken in a pastoral setting, not as a repast enjoyed either indoors or outdoors but which was contributed to by everybody. Modern picnics can be provisioned by only one cook, and no one would think anything of it — what matters now is the food be eaten outdoors.
By the 19th century, 'picnic' had successfully made this linguistic shift in meaning. Its history (and that of every other word in the English language) is documented in the Oxford English Dictionary, and nowhere in its lengthy OED entry is mention made of executions or blacks.
One has to wonder at the workings of the mind of someone who'd invent this spurious "pick a nigger" derivation and then set it loose on the Internet. Of course, the fact that it's spurious hasn't deterred those who are determined to find something to be offended by, as noted in this excerpt from a 2000 National Post article:
Meanwhile, things are not peachy on the campus of SUNY/Albany. The university wanted to honour baseball legend Jackie Robinson by having a picnic. But the university's equity office said this must not occur because the word "picnic" referred originally to gatherings held to lynch Blacks. In fact, as one of their own English professors (rather less committed to historical revisionism than RMC'sThere's a very real downside to spouting hoax definitions just because they push a few buttons: It makes those doing the protesting look ignorant. Those who run with their emotions instead of using their heads end up doing the racists' work for them by making themselves appear to be too foolish to crack open a dictionary before yelling that the sky is falling. This caricature is not something that should be fostered if racism is to be defeated, as Richard R. Jones noted in Black Voice News:
Many Black people are too quick to believe negative rumors; therefore, I refuse to contribute to national ignorance. These type of hoaxes only serve to make Black people look stupid and by no means is an advancement in education. It is too easy to go to the library and research the origin of words in dictionaries and/or encyclopedias to believe and spread every bit or garbage that comes through cyberspace.Barbara "nitpicnic'ing" Mikkelson
Last updated: 18 March 2008
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