François Lemoyne’s “Hunting Picnic” [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, Americans wipe the winter rust from their grills, stock up on steaks and dust off their picnic blankets, readying themselves for the alfresco dining event that opens the summer social calendar. And we ask ourselves that perennial question: just where do these two words describing festive outdoor meals come from? Curiously, one of them didn’t even have a hint of alfresco in its original meaning.
Contrary to various stories floating around the web in the last couple of decades, picnic has nothing to do with lynchings of African-Americans; indeed the word was born nowhere near American shores, but originated in France. And in true French tradition, it started out being all about wine, not food. Pique-nique was first seen in Tony Willis’s Origines de la Langue Française of 1692, and it described a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. (Yes: the French invented the concept of BYOB.) In fact, the whole idea of the picnic began not as a pastoral alfresco dining experience, as we think of it now, but rather as a meal to which each individual contributed, no matter what the context or the setting — like a precursor of the modern potluck dinner. When it first appeared in English usage — which, according to the OED, was in one of Lord Chesterfield’s letters in 1748 (although it was not in common use until after 1800), the word picnic was associated with card playing, drinking and conversation; for some picnics of the early 19th century century, guests would contribute entertainment rather than food items, and so it began English life as a fashionable social occasion, rather than a meal as such. The concept of a picnic being an outdoor repast first evolved from the rather indulgent rest breaks with refreshments taken during hunts in the 18th century, as illustrated in Lemoyne’s painting pictured above. The original word piquenique is possibly from the French verb piquer, meaning “to pick or peck”, paired with the rhyming word nique, meaning “something of little importance or worth”, which has German origins. However, the OED is altogether doubtful about piquenique‘s provenance.
Barbecue is an even older word, dating back to the mid 17th century and a different part of the world: the Spanish Americas. With an etymology much simpler and straightforward than that of its alfresco cousin described above, it comes from the Arawakan word barbakoa describing the raised framework of sticks on which the Indians would cure meat, and slowly over the course of the early 18th century it came to refer more specifically to “an outdoor meal of roasted meat or fish as a social entertainment” (from the Online Etymology Dictionary).
Happy Memorial Day!