In this nation’s history, words have been used in various ways to describe various situations or circumstances. Some of these situations or circumstances have been positive, while others have been quite the opposite.
One word that I have chosen to focus on in particular is “picnic.” The original meaning of the word has been up for debate for years, and some issues need to be resolved. The etymology of the word is one thing. However, how this word has been used in the past is another. We need to understand the word in different social contexts, so that we can gain knowledge about why the word has been used the way it has.
According to the anthology, African American Communication & Identities, edited by Ronald L. Jackson II, “Historically, when white slave owners wanted to penalize the black male for acts of aggression or disobedience, they would perform one of two activities: emasculation or a “picnic” (p 201). Picnic would suggest an acronym: pic-a-nic (“nic” would be short for “nigger”). White families would gather around outside, enjoy food fit for a “picnic,” and watch while slaves were hung or humiliated in other ways.
As I said before, this issue is up for debate, but the facts are there. With this in mind, let us ever be so mindful about the history of words so we can careful about what we say.
According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, a picnic is a social gathering at which participants bring food to be shared. The formation of a Picnic Society took place in London, England in the early 1800s by a group of fashionable people with the purpose of entertaining themselves in mind; it was especially considered to be for those of high class, as they would gather to discuss important matters in outdoor areas, mainly open parks. This social event would almost automatically exclude those who were not deemed competent in reading or writing by people with high class statuses.
However, there were some occasions where those of the lower class, which most likely included African-Americans, were invited to attend these gatherings. According to Andrew Hubbell, it was “a way for them to become what (it was imagined) they once were” (“How Wordsworth Invented Picnicking and Saved British Culture,” Romanticism, 2006, Vol. 12: Issue 1, pp.47). “By picnicking, the new consumer used his leisure and surplus income to improve himself and his community, recreating the primordial Britain of strength and proper relationships between self, community and land. Picnicking was thus a way for the newly enriched and leisured classes to perform their fitness to influence the social, political, and economic development of Britain.”
The word as we know it now encompasses every type of indoor and outdoor meal or festive event, including clambakes, barbecues (or “cookouts”), or fish fries. The custom of dining in this way is actually ancient, according to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Greek men would hold symposia from time to time where the guests ate and discussed matters of significance.
Up for debate is the question of whether or not there is any connection between the term “picnic” and the lynching of African-Americans during the time of slavery in our nation’s history. Etymologists would argue no, the term has no ties to the lynching of African-Americans. According to reference.com, the first usage of the word “picnic” is traced to the 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Francaise de M’nage. Therefore, it is safe to say the word has French roots. The term was used to signify cooperative dining in a restaurant in which the participants brought their own wine. The idea that “picnic” is actually based on the verb piquer, which means to “pick” or “peck” and the rhyming nique, which refers to “thing of little importance” is doubted. The Oxford English Dictionary makes it clear that the source of this interpretation of the word is unknown.
Words that have origins foreign to the United States have their original meanings and uses; but, we must not forget that the way words are used over time changes. This point is the key to understanding the word “picnic.” Is it possible that even though the term picque-nique (French spelling) first came on the scene at the end of the 17th century, the term could have been twisted around to reference a time of outdoor dining and entertainment that included the viewing of public hangings of African-Americans during a time of slavery and intense segregation? We use words all the time that have one meaning, but we use them in different ways based on context. Why is this not possible?
Once again, etymologists would maintain it is not reasonable to associate “picnic” with lynching. Michael Quinion a writer of issues concerning international English language from a British viewpoint, says in his World Wide Words website, “the association with an outdoor meal didn’t appear in English until about the middle of the nineteenth century. So there’s no truth in stories that attempt to link the origins of the words with slavery.” Many scholars disagree with this idea, and maintain that the word “picnic” does have some negative history behind it.