Is the Origin of the Word "Picnic" Derogatory?

Where Did the Word Come From?

A viral message circulating since 1999 contends that the word "picnic" originated in southern "family outings" during which white people joyfully lynched African Americans. This Folk etymology is an online rumor.

The True Origin of the Word "Picnic"

This email appears to be a parody of political correctness at its worst. It is false from start to finish, beginning with the description of the "Black African-American Archives at the Smithsonian Institute," claiming that whites routinely made a pleasant family event that involved the lynching of African Americans.

You can find the etymology of the word "picnic" by consulting any dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online gives the following origin:

Etymology: G or French; German Picknick, from French pique-nique. Date: 1748

Take Our Word for It, an online magazine that details the origins of words, provides more detail here. Upon receiving many inquiries about this chain letter, they contacted the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Alonzo Smith, a research fellow in African-American Studies at the Smithsonian, replied with a detailed debunking, including the following comments:

To attempt to tie lynchings to family outings, where food was served, is to misunderstand the real nature of these events. Rather, they were outbreaks of mass white hysteria, and attempts by groups of Whites to terrorize and brutalize the entire Black communities where they occurred. Often, they were motivated by alleged acts of violence by Blacks against Whites, alleged disrespect and other breaches of Southern racial "etiquette," and on many occasions, victims were chosen at random. Although women and children were frequently present, it is more accurate to view these events as collective psychotic behavior, rather than family outings. (Dr. Alonzo Smith in Take Our Word for It, March 15, 1999)

The lynching of African Americans by whites is an undeniable horror, and this feeble attempt at humor as only serves to diminish the seriousness of its history.

Sample Email About the Erroneous Origin of "Picnic"

Here's sample email text contributed by Tim A. on April 19, 1999:

Subject: FW: "PICNIC"

This e-mail comes to you as a public service announcement and as information in the form of a little known Black History Fact. This information is in the African American Archives at the Smithsonian Institute.

Although not taught in American learning institutions and literature, it is known 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 individuals would "pic" a Black person to lynch and make this into a family gathering. There would be music and a "picnic." ("Nic" being the white acronym for "nigger") Scenes of this were depicted in the movie "Rosewood." To be racially sensitive, we should choose to use the word "barbecue" or "outing" instead of "picnic."

Please forward this email to all of your family and friends and let us educate our people.