laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Jul 21 14:41:46 UTC 2002
>On Sun, 21 Jul 2002, Susan Dean Gilbert wrote:
>#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.
>If _Smithsonian_ published that without comment, they ought to be
>ashamed of themselves for spreading falsehood and promoting ignorance.
>It takes no deeper research than the Oxford English Dictionary to find
>the word traced back to about 1800 "as an English institution" [i.e., in
>England -- not the US], to 1748 in English with reference to foreign
>countries, and to French in 1692!! I will give only the earliest
>1748 Chesterfield, Letter to Son (in Germany, apparently Berlin):
> 29 Oct., I like the description of your _Pic-nic_; where, I take it for
>granted, that your cards are only to break the formality of a circle.
>The definition for this period is "A fashionable social entertainment in
>which each person present contributed a share of the provisions".
This is one of the classic etymythologies, which--like other
myths--refuses to die because it satisfies a cultural need. Here's
a bit more from the files (2000)
from a posting circulated on the Internet in 1999 (note the reference
to the Smithsonian):
This e-mail is being sent to you as a public service announcement and
as information in the form of a little known Black History Fact. This
information can also be found in the African American Archives at the
Although not taught in American learning institutions and literature,
it is noted in most Black history professional circles and literature
that the origin of the term "picnic" derives from the acts of
lynching African-Americans. The word "picnic" is rooted from the
whole theme of "Pick A Nigger." This is where individuals would "pic"
a Black person to lynch and make this into a family gathering. There
would be music and a "picnic." ("Nic" being the white acronym for
"nigger.") Scenes of this were depicted in the movie "Rosewood."
We should choose to use the word "barbecue" or "outing" instead of
the word "picnic."
Please forward this e-mail to all of your family and friends and
let's educate our people.
Barbara Mickelson's response at snopes.com (Nov. 15, 2000):
Origins: Specious etymologies seem to be all the rage of late, and
this wild claim about the word 'picnic' fits that trend. You'll be
heartened to know 'picnic' has nothing to do with lynching Blacks (or
anyone else, for that matter). The e-mailed "little known fact"
quoted above is a hoax. And a mean-spirited one at that.
The first documented appearance of the word 'picnic' in the English
language occurred in 1748, almost 30 years before the United States
of America was even a country. Our current word for alfresco dining
comes from the 17th-century French word 'piquenique,' a term for
casual indoor dining wherein each guest brought a dish to add to the
repast, or the German 'picknick.' (These days, we call such a meal a
'potluck supper.') As for where the French got it from, it likely was
created from joining the common form of the verb 'piquer' (meaning
"to pick" or "peck") and a nonsense rhyming word coined to fit the
first half of this new term.
By the 19th century, 'picnic' had come to mean what it does today
-- an outdoor meal wherein the food is hauled by the diners to a
pastoral spot where it is shared in an atmosphere of casual dining.
At no time did the execution of anyone play any part in how the word
came to us.
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 recent 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's Dr. Robinson) pointed out, the word "picnic" actually
comes from a 17th-century French word that denotes a party at which
everyone brings food. But Zaheer Mustafa, the equity officer,
nevertheless decreed that "picnic" not be used because "the point is
-- the word offends." So the university decided to call it an
"outing." Then, homosexual students took objection to that, and SUNY
decided to publicize the
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