Food for thought: Recently a friend mentioned that her Alma Mater had once renamed a celebratory picnic because of the word’s origin. The reason? It’s alleged ties to the slave trade. I was dumbfounded! Never had I heard this before! I asked if she had checked it’s etymology and she hadn’t – she believed that if an institution of higher learning were to go that far it must be true. I have been astonished by the truth behind word origins before, but this one ate at me. So I dug in!
Wikipedia does not mention such a connotation at all, but traces the word back to the 1692 edition of Tony Willis, Origines de la Langue Française. Marking the first appearance of the word in print, it mentions pique-nique as a term “used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. The concept of a picnic long retained the connotation of a meal to which everyone contributed something.”
So what frightened university officials? A claim had spread on the internet that picnic was a shortening of ‘pick a nigger’ and referred to an outdoor gathering where families enjoyed boxed lunches while a randomly chosen black man was hanged.
A research fellow in African-American Studies at the Smithsonian, Dr. Alonzo Smith, has debunked this in detail, including the following comments:
To attempt to tie lynchings to family outings, where food was served, is to misunderstand the real nature of these events. Rather, they were outbreaks of mass white hysteria, and attempts by groups of Whites to terrorize and brutalize the entire Black communities where they occurred. Often, they were motivated by alleged acts of violence by Blacks against Whites, alleged disrespect and other breaches of Southern racial “etiquette,” and on many occasions, victims were chosen at random. Although women and children were frequently present, it is more accurate to view these events as collective psychotic behavior, rather than family outings.
I take great pleasure in words and their connotations, as well as a good potluck. What do you bring to the table?