Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Mon Jul 22 16:18:01 UTC 2002

> |o| I wouldn't say the jury was out at all. There are
> certainly a number of
> |o| people who believe that picnics took place at the sites
> of lynchings and
> |o| that the word has its origin in this practice.
> The photographic record is pretty clear that people did picnic at
> lynching/hangings.  So far the attitude seems to be, if we
> don't know about
> this use of the word, then it can't be true.  True or not,
> however, I'd
> think it interesting to know where & how that it got started,
> like the H in
> Jesus H Christ.

I think there is little doubt that such incidents did occur. The question is
how common were they? Were they common enough to create an actual
association between the word "picnic" and lynchings in the minds of African
Americans. Or is the association a recent and fanciful one, created in the
minds of a few, connecting a horrifying but singular event with a false
etymology, and then spread via email and fax?

As for how it got started, it's probably hopeless to try and pin down the
exact origin. (I've found references to the false etymology dating to 1993.)
It probably started by someone making guess at an origin without looking it
up in the dictionary. Perhaps the person was making a joke, one whose dark
humor was understandably lost on listeners who took it for fact. There are
lots of other examples. Other ethnic examples include the "whole nine yards"
being the amount of cloth used to make a Scottish kilt or a 15th century
Bristol merchant named Ameryk lending his name to a new continent or "OK"
coming from the Greek "olla kalla." Someone, somewhere made a guess and
ethnic pride keeps the false origin alive. But it is nothing but a factoid,
one that does not affect usage of the word or phrase.

As far as the attitude being "if we don't know about this use..., then it
can't be true," I think the better way of stating it would be let us not
make up speculative usages. First let's find evidence that the offensive
connotation actually exists outside the forwarded emails and faxes that
spread the false origin before we try to determine how it came to be. The
NPR interview is a negative data point in this respect. Robinson describes
the picnics at lynchings and then goes on to use "picnic" in another
context, free of association with lynchings. Clearly, in her mind there is
no racist or offensive connotation in "picnic."

So far, what we've got is urban legend, not linguistics.

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