August 20, 2013

Case File #013.08.20: PICNIC

Picnic is an Anglicized form of the French piquenique. The French word came into use in the mid-seventeenth century, and while there is no tangible evidence regarding its specific origins, linguists and etymologists have offered up a cogent theory: they think it was formed from a combination of the French verb piquer, meaning “to pick,” and the Old French noun nique, meaning “a trifling thing.” If this is true, then piquenique literally means “to pick a trifling thing,” which seems reasonable when you consider that the French word and its English spin-off, picnic, were originally used to mean “potluck dinner” and that the dishes at a potluck are usually easy-to-prepare and easy-to-carry trifles from which daring diners are encouraged to pick and choose. It wasn't until the early nineteenth century that the English noun came to mean “a meal eaten outdoors,” and the verb sense, “to eat a meal in the open air,” wasn't coined until 1842, making its debut in the opening lines of Tennyson's poem “Audley Court.” The figurative use of picnic in which it means “easy task” or “pleasant experience”—as in, for example, “Finishing the job before deadline was no picnic”—first appeared in the early twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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