Is the Word "Picnic" Derogatory?

A Viral Rumor Incorrectly Claims That the Term Has a Nefarious Origin

Food on blanket in grass
Tom Merton/Getty Images

A viral message circulating since 1999 contends that the word "picnic" originated from southern family outings during which white people lynched African-Americans. This folk etymology is an online rumor, which is patently false.

Example Email

Here's sample email text from April 19, 1999:

Subject: FW: "PICNIC"
This email 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. ... 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" was a derogatory term for a black person.) 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.

The Word's True Origin

You can find more about the etymology of the word "picnic" by consulting any dictionary. Merriam-Webster online gives the following explanation: "Origin and Etymology of picnic: German or French; German Picknick, from French pique-nique."

Take Our Word for It, an online magazine that details the origins of words, provides more detail: 

"Picnic was borrowed from French piquenique, a word which seems to have originated around the end of the 17th century. It is not clear where it came from, but one theory is that it was based on the verb piquer 'pick, peck' (source of English pick), with the rhyming nique perhaps added in half reminiscence of the obsolete nique 'trifle.' Originally the word denoted a sort of party to which everyone brought along some food; the notion of an 'outdoor meal' did not emerge until the 19th century."

17th-Century French Word

Other sources agree: "Picnic began life as a 17th-century French word: it wasn’t even close to being an American invention," the website Snopes says. "A 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage mentions ‘piquenique’ as being of recent origin and marks the first appearance of the word in print."

The word was likely invented by joining the common form of the verb "piquer" (meaning “to pick” or “peck”) with "nique," possibly either a Germanic term meaning “worthless thing” or merely a nonsense rhyming syllable coined to fit the first half of the term, says the website.

A picnic is a tranquil and relaxing event, "an excursion or outing in which participants carry food with them and share a meal in the open air," says, which agrees with the other sources about the term's etymology and even shows a helpful map of the countries where the word originated. The lynching of African-Americans by whites is an undeniable horror, and this feeble attempt at humor only serves to diminish the seriousness of its history.