Summer is coming and it will soon be time for picnics. As reported by Word Detective and confirmed on NPR, “picnic” first appeared in English in 1748. It seems to have come from a French word “piquenique,” which appeared in 1692. This was a nonsense rhyming word and roughly meant to pick a trifle. The first picnics were what we today would call pot-luck dinners. Only in the mid-19th century did “picnic” come to mean a meal eaten outdoors. For wealthy Victorians, a picnic was hardly a “trifle”. They staged elaborate outdoor gourmet meals on tables set with linens and crystal; all tended by servants. My sense of today’s usage is that “picnics” carry prepared foods away from home, while “barbeques” include cooking and occur in the back yard.
An unpleasant rumor spread in the late 1990’s, confirmed by Word Detective and Snopes, that the word originated as a racist term related to lynchings. I wonder how a pleasant family-oriented “picnic” inspired such a rumor?