The scales have fallen from my eyes! Last week, I expressed puzzlement that it was considered politically incorrect in sensitive circles to say you were off to a “picnic” when you packed up the deviled eggs and ham sandwiches. This came in response to a letter we got over Alison’s post on the many, many pointless things you can do to implement “diversity” on your college campus (see “Duh-versity,” May 25). On May 30 we received an e-mail from a reader containing this paragraph:
“When I entered my very liberal boarding school, I remember being sent a list of things not to say, things that might offend people from other cultures. The list has really stuck with me for many years, because it was so awful and wonderful all at the same time. Just so you know, from now on don’t say, ‘Going Dutch.’ ‘caught red-handed,’ or ‘picnic.'”
Yes, we know that Netherlandish folk and Communist Party members have tender sensibilities–but “picnic”? What was that all about? Now, our friend Sandra Miesel, stalwart contributor to The Women’s Quarterly, explains:
“In case readers haven’t already told you, the PC crowd’s ire at ‘picnic’ is based on its supposed use in the South as a code word for ‘lynching.’ I guess all those church picnics were really something else.
“I suspect the connection was made up out of whole cloth. Oh? Did I offend some other group with that idiom?”
Yes, you did, Sandra. Taiwanese textile workers are up in arms. (Oops! Now I’ve ticked off the Iranian nuclear industry! Oh, no, now it’s Swiss watchmakers, too!)
But Sandra is absolutely correct. About six years ago an urban leged surfaced on the Internet holding that the word “picnic” derived from a supposed post-Civil War Southern custom of “picking” a black man to hang and then hauling the whole family out with a basket lunch to enjoy the spectacle. According to Snopes.com, web-users were warned:
“We should choose to use the word ‘barbecue’ or ‘outing’ instead of the word ‘picnic.'”
In fact, as Snopes.com points out, this etymology is absurd:
“‘Picnic’ began life as a 17th-century French word – it wasn’t even close to being an American invention. A 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage mentions ‘piquenique’ as being of recent origin marks the first appearance of the word in print. As for how the French came by this new term, it was likely invented by joining the common form of the verb ‘piquer’ (meaning ‘to pick’ or ‘peck’) and a nonsense rhyming syllable coined to fit the first half of this new palate-pleaser.”
What amazes me is that a posh boarding school that presumably had a pack of highly educated teachers and administrators on staff, would buy into a silly story floating around on the Internet instead of looking the word up in a decent dictionary. But what else can you expect from the kind of people who worry that the phrase “red-handed” will lower the self-esteem of former KGB members?