Picnic: Killing Slaves?

Jim Rader jrader at M-W.COM
Thu Jun 10 12:07:59 UTC 1999

The notion that <picnic> comes from the phrase "pick a nigger"--if I
may put it so plainly without offending anyone--has become an
Internet rumor that refuses to die down.  I think I've answered a
dozen or so e-mail queries to Merriam-Webster about <picnic> over
the last six months, and I'm probably not answering all the queries
that the company receives with the same content.  The first time I
dealt with this etymology was in reply to a snail-mail letter
received here in Jan., 1996.

The earliest references I've found, via Web and Nexis searches,
credit the etymology to Ron Wallace, co-author, with Jay Jay Wilson,
of _Black Wallstreet: A Lost Dream_, a fictionalized account of the
Tulsa race riot of 1921, which was self-published by the authors in
1993.  I have never located a copy of the book, so I can't say if the
etymology is actually in it, though to judge from attributions in the
African-American press, Wallace seems to have promulgated the story
in lectures and appearances following the book's publication.  The
most recent e-mail queries I've received quote from a message the
individual has seen, which usually runs as follows:

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 white individuals
would "pic" a black person to lynch and make this into a family
gathering.  There would be food and music and a "picnic"...("nic"
being the white acronym for "nigger").

Wallace is not mentioned as the source of the story, but the tenor is
the same.  This message typically concludes with an admonition to use
the word "barbecue" or "outing" rather than "picnic."

The only good thing I can say about putting out this particular fire
is that it's fairly easily accomplished.

Jim Rader

> I have to confess that I've never heard this particular bit of
> folk-etymology before, but in pondering it just now, it suddenly struck me
> how it may have come about. Put aside the actual etymology, which few people
> are aware of anyway. Then re-analyze "picnic," Horne Tooke style, as if it
> were a combination of English words, and see what you come up with.
> I hope this is not too oblique an explanation.
> Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing at nyu.edu or gd2 at is2.nyu.edu

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