Picnic. When we say the word, we have something definite in mind, right? To us, a picnic is an outdoor meal, often where we haul our food in with us from someplace else.

Turns out that meaning didn’t evolve until the mid-1800s. So what was it before?

Picnic was first used in 1748, but the event itself was rare before 1800, so far as historians can tell. And while always used to describe a certain type of meal, it was originally not meant in the way we think of now. You know what it was originally? A potluck! The earliest definitions of the word are for “a fashionable social affair, usually indoors, where every partaker brings something to contribute to the general table.”

Where did the word itself come from? That’s great question. Most etymologists agree we borrowed the word from French, but the root words are unclear. In fact, the Century Dictionary has this to say:

As in many other riming names, the elements are used without precision, but the lit. sense is appar. ‘a picking or nibbling of bits,’ a snatch, snack ….

Picnic basket dates from 1857, picnic table from 1858 for a folding table one would transport, and the metaphorical sense of something being easy is from 1886.

Do you enjoy picnics? Are you a blanket-on-the-group type, or a give-me-a-table-and-umbrella type?

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