There are certain words and phrases that everyone knows you shouldn’t say because they’re racist. There’s no need for us to list them here — we’re all aware of the damage certain racist terms have. However, there are also some everyday terms that people use commonly without knowing that they have their roots in racism. Examples of the latter are things like “peanut gallery,” “uppity,” or the song “Turkey in the Straw,” which is used by ice cream trucks all over the country.
And then there are words and phrases that fall into a third category of false etymologies and general confusion. People claim that a word or phrase is racist even when it actually isn’t, and then other people accept that as truth and start railing against a word that actually isn’t problematic at all. That’s what’s happening with the word “picnic” — people are saying it stands for something racist … but it actually doesn’t.
What does “picnic” stand for? Is it a racist term?
You may have encountered the vitriol against the word “picnic” online lately. Maybe you shared a nice post of a family outing that took place outdoors and involved a blanket, basket, and food. But call it a “picnic” and you might anger some people.
There’s a theory floating around the internet that the word “picnic” is short for “Pick a [N-word].” According to this false etymology, a picnic started out as a gathering where people would choose a Black person to lynch and make the entire event into a family activity that included an outdoor meal.
In reality, while heinous lynchings did occur, and while they were often attended by crowds of people, there is no connection between the word “picnic” and lynching, nor are there any racial undertones to the word. Actually, the word “picnic” isn’t English at all, nor does it originate from America. It started out as a 17th-century French word and was most likely invented by combining the verb piquer (meaning “to pick” or “peck”) with “nique,” a nonsensical rhyming syllable that rounded out the word.
Originally, “picnics” referred to the actual food that was brought by various guests to a group gathering (today, this would be like your Aunt Brenda calling her famous cheesy potato casserole a “potluck”). Eventually, “picnic” came to refer to the gathering itself, and then became associated with eating outside.
False etymologies like the one behind “picnic” are nothing new and are perhaps becoming even more prevalent as discussions surrounding racism (especially in the U.S.) are happening with increased frequency. People have also claimed that the term “master bedroom” has its roots in slavery and that the term was initially used to refer to the bedroom belonging to a person who owned enslaved people.
In reality, the word “master” (just like the word “picnic”) has been around for longer than slavery, and the term was actually just used to refer to the main bedroom. However, as the false etymology for “master bedroom” continues to gain popularity in online spaces, some real estate companies have elected to stop using the term in order to avoid offending anyone.
In short, the word “picnic” is not racist, nor was it ever a racist term. That being said, you can and should absolutely use your own judgment when it comes to whether you want to use the word. If someone tells you they are personally offended by it, maybe it’s worth it to switch up your language and use “outing” or “gathering” instead. Or you can gently point them in the direction of an etymological dictionary … or this very article!