Q From Kym Kennedy: Can you tell me how the word picnic came about? There is a rumor about that the name came from a racist practice of ‘picking’ blacks for lynching and celebrating the occasion with food and games. Have you ever heard of this explanation?
A I have. There are various stories about the origins of picnic that are currently circulating that link it to black American subjugation. These are two of the versions that I’ve come across:
Though there’s no truth in these stories from an etymological viewpoint, it is very understandable how the first of these arose. Some of the historic photographs of lynchings show families with picnic baskets. This is evidence enough that a lynching was often a social occasion, but if you need further proof, you have only to investigate how often the phrase lynching bee turns up in contemporary descriptions of such events. However, there is no evidence at all for the second story.
Picnic is originally a French word, picque-nique, which first appeared at the end of the seventeenth century. It later spread to Germany and other countries, but didn’t become widely known in English until after 1800. It referred to a fashionable type of social entertainment in which each person who attended brought a share of the food. The first part may be from the French piquer, from which we get pick. The nique part may just have been a reiteration (as in English words like hoity-toity), but could have echoed an obsolete word meaning “a trifle” (so the term could have meant something like “each pick a bit”). The association with an outdoor meal didn’t appear in English until about the middle of the nineteenth century.
So there’s no truth in stories that attempt to link the origins of the words with slavery.