Frank Abate abatefr at EARTHLINK.NET
Sun Jul 21 14:22:57 UTC 2002

Susan Dean Gilbert said:

Last month's Smithsonian(July, pp.70-77) had a wonderful piece on Ida B.
Wells and her advocacy for families and victims of lynching. Clarissa
Myrick-Harris mentioned that the word picnic is believed to be a abbreviated
or truncated synthesis of the horrific practice of "picking" a "ni_ _er" and
then lynching him for sport while people sat around and ate lunch. She says
that today many African Americans see this term as insulting and derogative.
What is the collective wisdom of the group on this one? Did picnic come from
this twisted originating matrix?
Susan Dean Gilbert

The answer is emphatically No -- _picnic_ entered English through a German
term for a European custom of the 18th cent. which in French was called
_pique-nique_.  The French rhyming combination is said to be of unknown
origin by etyms I've checked (SOED, OED, RHDU).

The "pick" origin theory is false, as the expression entered English from
foreign sources.  However, as a folk etym, the belief may be widespread.  It
reminds me of the false analysis of _niggardly_ that was such a controversy
a few years ago.  Similar is the supposed Native American origin of _OK_,
which Woodrow Wilson championed, but which Allen Walker Read showed to be
totally false.

Of course, lots of folks don't let etymology stand in the way of their story
or their ax-grinding.  Arguments based on etymology are often widely

Frank Abate

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