Is the Word Picnic Really Racist? Does it Refer to Lynchings?

Posted on 19 Feb 2013 01:39

This post goes against my inclination to keep this site light but the purpose is to take the heavy out of an innocent term.

Have you ever been told not to use the word picnic because it has racist origins?

The story goes that the word derived from the practice in the American South during slavery times to "pick a negro" to lynch and then make a social gathering of it.

Pictures of white people, dressed up and smiling at the camera, while black victims hang in the background, have been shown as evidence.

Of course, the other "n" word was used, and it is said that white people would randomly select a victim for these public gatherings.

Hence the shortened term "pic-nic" came to be used for these gatherings.

Did such gatherings occur? Yes, unfortunately, in the late 19th century, lynchings of blacks was common, although by the twentieth century public lynchings of this sort were not considered acceptable and they were done by cowardly masked men in the dead of night.

But the idea that the word picnic came from this is just an urban legend.

Like many such legends, it came from an email. The information was said to be confirmed by the Smithsonian Institution.


This email was originally posted to Usenet in 1998. The email had the Smithsonian Institution name on it but it supposedly came from a public relations official at the Field Museum in Chicago. The email could have been a hoax but it is just as possible that the employee of the museum simply received the email and forwarded it along without checking the facts, making it appear as if the Smithsonian were endorsing this information. Regardless of how this legend got started, there is absolutely no relationship between lynchings and the word picnic. The actual origins of the word are quite clear and easy to research.

Picnic derived from the French word pique-nique, a term from the late 17th century. A pique-nique was kind of like a pot-luck, but more upscale. Pique means pick, so that is easy. It comes from piquer, which has many shades of meaning. And nique means something like "nothing much" or a "trifle." It was a social gathering in which each guest brought along a little something to eat.

The word came to English around the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth century. The French word appears as early as 1692 and the English version by 1748. The widespread use of the word picnic in Britain did not occur until around 1800. At first, this referred to the same kind of event as the French version. The gatherings must have been moved outdoors increasingly, and eventually picnic came to mean an informal meal eaten out of doors.

After the French Revolution, when the royal parks of Paris became opened to the public, Londoners looking to be high-falutin looked to Paris for inspiration and 'Picnic Societies' or 'Picnic Clubs' were formed where members would arrive to outdoor feasts with their own small contribution. This was an imitation of the French fête champêtre or garden party.

There is some reference, in the Oxford English Dictionary, to the word picnic being associated with poker playing. Today's version of the picnic, however, of bringing many small cold dishes on an outing, may be connected to the English practice of bringing cold game pies, or roasted meats along on a hunt, obviously to be eaten outdoors. This practice dates back to the fourteenth century. All of this was well before blacks came to be lynched in the American South.

There is absolutely nothing to the story that picnic has racist, and murderous, origins. It is an internet myth that has become an urban myth.

1. Wilton, David, and Ivan Brunetti. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.
2. Jackson, Jeremy. Good Day for a Picnic: Simple Food That Travels Well. New York: William Morrow, 2005.

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