The first usage of the word was by the French, traced to 1692’s Origines de la Langue Française de Ménage, which mentions ‘pique-nique’ as being of recent French origin. It was a term used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. Generally the term retained the connotation of a meal where everyone contributed something. ‘Pique’ is a French word meaning to pick or peck; ‘nique’ a nonsensical word, probably added for humor, but also possibly influenced by a German word meaning ‘little pieces or worthless things.’
Thus, a ‘pique-nique’ differed from a lavish banquet as it was a small, informal meal in which the guests picked little pieces of food as they chose.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it was in 1748 that the word ‘picnic’ first appeared in an English text. In a letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son, ‘picnic’ was used to describe a fashionable, but casual, indoor assembly where each person contributed food. Lord Chesterfield’s son was in Berlin at the time, and interestingly enough, the German’s used the word ‘picknick’ very commonly for such social gatherings. Whether the Germans were influenced by the French ‘pique-nique’ or not is open to debate; also it is not precisely known whether the English were influenced by the French or German words. Sort of an etymology chicken-or-egg discussion! What is clear is that the term was expressly applied to indoor events for the elite to show off their cooking skills, as well as other talents.
In 1802, the Prince of Wales – who would soon be the Prince Regent – formed the Picnic Society. This was an exclusive social group that met to eat and perform plays that they wrote themselves.Dining out-of-doors was a very common activity for both the wealthy and not-wealthy, usually as a needed respite while on hunting forays. For the bourgeoisie class, open-air meals of cold food rapidly became social gatherings and were often extremely elaborate. English history shows that such events boomed in the years following the French wars, with Royal Parks widely opened to the public. It was during these first two decades of the 18th century that the OED recognizes that the indoor pleasure parties known as picnics shifted to an outside, rustic location. The rapid shift has never been explained, except to point to the Romantic nature of this time in English history. They became leisurely pastimes offering the pleasures of rural walking and the picturesque, with the joy of dining. In less than twenty years, an invitation to a picnic would signify a completely different set of customs, clothes, social groupings, behaviors, food, settings, and values. This article by Andrew Hubbell from 2006 addressing Romanticism in English history covers the picnic evolution fabulously.
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