Edit: When I wrote this back in 2008, I was less sensitized to the insistent racism and injustice experienced by black people in America, and so I did not take into account why the erroneous account might spread so readily, or the surrounding sentiments; I also used the word lynching too readily in a figurative sense, which can belittle the genuine life-and-death nature of its historical reality.
Nobody likes being called racist, of course, but the fact that it upset me so much is likely because to some extent I really did, in the back of my mind, belittle the concerns of blacks in America and Canada. When your life has been free of certain kinds of harassment, it’s far too easy to think those who complain of it are whiners. I’ve since learned better.
But I’m not going to revise this and pretend I didn’t write it as I wrote it. These are my words the way I wrote them, and I won’t duck and pretend I wasn’t so knee-jerk insensitive.
I still do not accept the inaccurate etymology offered for picnic; the historical data are well established. And I do think that phonetic profiling can have scurrilous effect. But the sounds of words also have effect regardless of etymology. For example, niggardly has nothing to do with the “n-word” etymologically, but it sounds so much like it, it’s more or less impossible to use it without bringing that worse word to mind. I am less convinced of this in regard to picnic, but I would like to know how others hear it (before they are told any accounts of its origins).
I do not, in any event, consider it fair to tell people they are being racist for using a word that has no actual history of racism and that, to them, has no racist overtones or implications. Especially when no one seems to be calling anyone out for using bulldoze, which has a truly awful history – but doesn’t sound like a taboo word.
But now that these stories have been spread, we have to be aware of them, and address them – and the sentiments and experiences behind them.
Spread the word and help stop another lynching of a perfectly guiltless word – and the family tradition it refers to. Tell your friends and colleagues that picnic is not a racist word.
You might think that this is a joke or a parody. Unfortunately, it’s not. People with influence over what students learn are maintaining that “picnic” is an offensive word, and that the origin of the “picnic” is in a happy outing to eat out on a lawn while watching a lynching (the term supposedly being from “pick a nic” – “nic,” in this account, is another version of the “n-word” – to string up). This is completely false, as anyone who cares to open an etymological dictionary – or, better yet, as many etymological dictionaries as can be found in their local library – will learn. But people with discretionary power in the educational system, people who are supposed to be making sure that students are learning how to tell truth from falsehood and how to check their facts, are spreading this hurtful, hateful lie without even a glance at the historical facts. And the only lynching happening is that of the truth and of a perfectly innocent family tradition. Who has not used the term “picnic” or gone on a picnic? Now we’re being told by people who don’t want to be bothered with facts that we’re racists because of it.
I became aware of this false story when an editor of my acquaintance who works on school textbooks was told by a reviewer not to use the term “picnic” because it was a racist term. That’s someone who has authority over what children learn – someone who hasn’t bothered to look up the facts. But it gets better. At SUNY Albany, a picnic to be held in honor of Jackie Robinson had to be renamed because the student assembly’s director of affirmative action, Zaheer Mustafa, distributed a threatening memo about “picnic” and several students staged a rally in protest of the word. When it was pointed out that the word’s origin had nothing to do with racism, Mustafa and his cohorts would not be swayed. (For sources on this, see http://www.snopes.com/language/offense/picnic.htm, or simply Google Zaheer Mustafa picnic.) And an author named Ron Wallace is spreading this falsehood in lectures and in his book Black Wallstreet. He’s been quoted on many websites already.
The real origin of the word “picnic” is the French “pique-nique,” which was cited in a 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise, by Gilles de Ménage, as being of recent invention. It originally referred to a pot-luck party. The word made it into English in England in the 18th century. Over time, the emphasis came to be on a gathering to eat outside, and the requirement for multiple contributors disappeared. The whole history of the word can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with source citations, but a quick check at dictionary.com or m-w.com will give you the basic details. None of these sources have any mention of the supposed lynching parties. And, believe me, there are few people as obsessed with getting little details right as the word geeks who dig up etymologies, and few people as credible, thorough and authoritative as the researchers of the Oxford English Dictionary.
But the availability of that information to anyone within range of a good library – or even a computer with an Internet connection – has not stopped the spread and acceptance of the false origin. Why has it not? Because people seem to love a catchy story. And because some people are willing to believe just about anything that gives them a reason to be angry, resentful or self-righteous, or just helps them to seem more informed than the next person. This is why other words and phrases have already fallen victim to similar assaults. For instance, “niggling” and “niggardly,” both words with no racist origin or connotation, have fallen victim to a sort of phonetic profiling. And many people believe “rule of thumb” is a reference to the thickness of a stick a man was legally allowed to beat his wife with, even though this spurious account has been completely discredited and accurate information is available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Please help stop these violations of our language. Let your friends know the real origin of the word “picnic” before someone tells the false one to them. And, please, whenever you hear or read of a fascinating origin of a word or phrase, or some other nifty bit of “truth,” check it out to make sure it’s true. Look at www.dictionary.com and www.m-w.com for more accurate etymologies of words. Visit www.worldwidewords.org for origins of popular phrases and fuller stories on words. And check out any bit of “information” that’s being passed around at www.snopes.com – any story that you get by email has a good chance of being evaluated there, with actual use of actual research. If the people spreading the lie about picnics had done just two minutes of research first, they would have known the truth. If, that is, they even wanted to.