Help stop a word-lynching

Edit: When I wrote this back in 2008, I was less sensitized to the insistent racism and injustice experienced by black people in America, and so I did not take into account why the erroneous account might spread so readily, or the surrounding sentiments; I also used the word lynching too readily in a figurative sense, which can belittle the genuine life-and-death nature of its historical reality.

Nobody likes being called racist, of course, but the fact that it upset me so much is likely because to some extent I really did, in the back of my mind, belittle the concerns of blacks in America and Canada. When your life has been free of certain kinds of harassment, it’s far too easy to think those who complain of it are whiners. I’ve since learned better.

But I’m not going to revise this and pretend I didn’t write it as I wrote it. These are my words the way I wrote them, and I won’t duck and pretend I wasn’t so knee-jerk insensitive.

I still do not accept the inaccurate etymology offered for picnic; the historical data are well established. And I do think that phonetic profiling can have scurrilous effect. But the sounds of words also have effect regardless of etymology. For example, niggardly has nothing to do with the “n-word” etymologically, but it sounds so much like it, it’s more or less impossible to use it without bringing that worse word to mind. I am less convinced of this in regard to picnic, but I would like to know how others hear it (before they are told any accounts of its origins).

I do not, in any event, consider it fair to tell people they are being racist for using a word that has no actual history of racism and that, to them, has no racist overtones or implications. Especially when no one seems to be calling anyone out for using bulldoze, which has a truly awful history – but doesn’t sound like a taboo word.

But now that these stories have been spread, we have to be aware of them, and address them – and the sentiments and experiences behind them.

 

Spread the word and help stop another lynching of a perfectly guiltless word – and the family tradition it refers to. Tell your friends and colleagues that picnic is not a racist word.

You might think that this is a joke or a parody. Unfortunately, it’s not. People with influence over what students learn are maintaining that “picnic” is an offensive word, and that the origin of the “picnic” is in a happy outing to eat out on a lawn while watching a lynching (the term supposedly being from “pick a nic” – “nic,” in this account, is another version of the “n-word” – to string up). This is completely false, as anyone who cares to open an etymological dictionary – or, better yet, as many etymological dictionaries as can be found in their local library – will learn. But people with discretionary power in the educational system, people who are supposed to be making sure that students are learning how to tell truth from falsehood and how to check their facts, are spreading this hurtful, hateful lie without even a glance at the historical facts. And the only lynching happening is that of the truth and of a perfectly innocent family tradition. Who has not used the term “picnic” or gone on a picnic? Now we’re being told by people who don’t want to be bothered with facts that we’re racists because of it.

I became aware of this false story when an editor of my acquaintance who works on school textbooks was told by a reviewer not to use the term “picnic” because it was a racist term. That’s someone who has authority over what children learn – someone who hasn’t bothered to look up the facts. But it gets better. At SUNY Albany, a picnic to be held in honor of Jackie Robinson had to be renamed because the student assembly’s director of affirmative action, Zaheer Mustafa, distributed a threatening memo about “picnic” and several students staged a rally in protest of the word. When it was pointed out that the word’s origin had nothing to do with racism, Mustafa and his cohorts would not be swayed. (For sources on this, see http://www.snopes.com/language/offense/picnic.htm, or simply Google Zaheer Mustafa picnic.) And an author named Ron Wallace is spreading this falsehood in lectures and in his book Black Wallstreet. He’s been quoted on many websites already.

The real origin of the word “picnic” is the French “pique-nique,” which was cited in a 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise, by Gilles de Ménage, as being of recent invention. It originally referred to a pot-luck party. The word made it into English in England in the 18th century. Over time, the emphasis came to be on a gathering to eat outside, and the requirement for multiple contributors disappeared. The whole history of the word can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with source citations, but a quick check at dictionary.com or m-w.com will give you the basic details. None of these sources have any mention of the supposed lynching parties. And, believe me, there are few people as obsessed with getting little details right as the word geeks who dig up etymologies, and few people as credible, thorough and authoritative as the researchers of the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the availability of that information to anyone within range of a good library – or even a computer with an Internet connection – has not stopped the spread and acceptance of the false origin. Why has it not? Because people seem to love a catchy story. And because some people are willing to believe just about anything that gives them a reason to be angry, resentful or self-righteous, or just helps them to seem more informed than the next person. This is why other words and phrases have already fallen victim to similar assaults. For instance, “niggling” and “niggardly,” both words with no racist origin or connotation, have fallen victim to a sort of phonetic profiling. And many people believe “rule of thumb” is a reference to the thickness of a stick a man was legally allowed to beat his wife with, even though this spurious account has been completely discredited and accurate information is available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Please help stop these violations of our language. Let your friends know the real origin of the word “picnic” before someone tells the false one to them. And, please, whenever you hear or read of a fascinating origin of a word or phrase, or some other nifty bit of “truth,” check it out to make sure it’s true. Look at www.dictionary.com and www.m-w.com for more accurate etymologies of words. Visit www.worldwidewords.org for origins of popular phrases and fuller stories on words. And check out any bit of “information” that’s being passed around at www.snopes.com – any story that you get by email has a good chance of being evaluated there, with actual use of actual research. If the people spreading the lie about picnics had done just two minutes of research first, they would have known the truth. If, that is, they even wanted to.

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29 responses to “Help stop a word-lynching

  1. I. Langalibalele

    Methinks you protest too much. Incredibly, real injustice goes down all the time but this is your crusade, to fight for the word “P-I-C-N-I-C”. You kno where “picnic” comes from, your family proly keep some black man’s testicles in a pickle jar and that’s why you feel it’s so important to defend “picnic”. Am I right or am I right?

  2. Of course you’re not right at all. Like everyone else who blogs, I am more than just what I blog about. In the rest of my life I am involved in social justice causes and have fought racism and sexism my whole life.

    But this blog is about language. And language does matter, as those protesting against the word “picnic” clearly agree. Language affects the way people think and act, and it can divide or unite.

    The matter of “picnic” is more important than you seem to think it is precisely because it continues the racism and divisions which we want to overcome. This false story makes black people who believe it hate white people even more, without justification, and it gives anti-black racists ammunition because it is false.

    I no more have black men’s testicles in a pickle jar than you have white men’s testicles in a pickle jar. Unfortunately, by saying such things about me just because I am white and you don’t like what I’ve written, you are yourself being a racist. I wish you wouldn’t. We all have brains and hearts. God gave them to us to use them. Racism doesn’t fight racism; it just adds to it.

    I could have deleted your comment, but instead I just deleted the earlier more upset reply I wrote — there’s no use in just shouting back and forth, as I know when I calm down (no one likes being insulted). But I want your comment to stand as an example of why I think this sort of thing is important. There’s a lot of hatred out there, and it’s being whipped up by things like the false story about “picnic.” And it doesn’t solve anything; it just makes everything worse.

  3. Langalibalele, it seems very strange that you would criticize the proprietor of this blog for misspending his energies, when you are here spending energy telling him (insofar as I can discern what your point might be) that he is a) talking about language when he should be talking about racism, b) wrong (I think that’s what you’re trying to say?) about the antecedents of the word (can you support this with any sources?) and c) a racist descended from people who committed crimes against humanity.

    You do yourself and your arguments (for so I will dignify them) no credit.

  4. I. Langalibalele

    Again, methinks you all protest too much. After all, why or even how would any non-white person anywhere on the face of the earth acquire a white man’s testicles pickled, Sesquiotic? I remember a Penthouse Magazine issue where it said that Stephen King keeps guess what on his desk. He says its a form of inspiration. Yeah. This is racism handed down from generation to generation! Okay, so you want to make me the problem since you are launching a crusade to dilute the racially-charged history of the P-I-C-N-I-C word. Wow. Impressive. Must be a reason and a rationale. Plus, Jennie, you already rose to the bait, now you want to make somebody believe you can’t give me no dignity. Typical.

  5. Oh, I see, you’re just trolling. Well, the facts are there for anyone who wants to read them: there is no racially charged history. It’s pure invention, and a very recent invention at that. You haven’t produced any evidence to the contrary because not only is there no evidence, there is overwhelming evidence that what I say is true.

    Since God gave you a brain, you would do honour to God to use it. If you don’t believe in God, well, then, let me put it this way: stop acting like a fourteen-year-old. Thanks.

    Oh, and do please give a source for the assertion re: Stephen King.

    If you come back without credible sources (you know, prove what you’re saying, no mob justice, no lynchings here), I won’t waste any more time.

    Are you, in fact, by any chance, some racist white kid posing as a black guy to try to make black guys look bad? If so, stop it. If not, stop it anyway.

  6. New to this blog, and this post happens to inform a conversation about racism and language I was having earlier. We were talking about the fellow in the states who got fired for using the word “niggardly”, (later rehired), and it got into other words that sound racist but aren’t. It was a strange conversation filled with taboo words in innocuous sentences, like:
    “There’s a chink in my armour.”
    “That’s a huge whopping fine. ”
    “This kitchen is spic and span”
    Of course, none of these are racist, and it would be pretty terrible if they were used as ammunition for hatred, but it was kinda funny to see such potentially inflammatory homonyms laid out.

    • I remember reading of someone who got disciplined or fired (I’d have to go back and dig) for sending out a memo talking about looking at the pedagogical aspects of something. His boss — and this was at a big company — thought he was talking about pedophilia or pederasty. I think he was ultimately vindicated; I’d have to go back and see if I can find my source on this.

      We must fight phonetic profiling!

  7. I. Langalibalele

    Verry interesting, but reactionary! What other usage does spic have? Just in spic and span! Huh. How many chinks are there in your armor? What other usages? Think about it. Whopping and wop are diff; whopping has many uses and it’s confined to a tense, while wop is another word altogether. You are getting caught in your own racist nets.

    The word nigger derives from fusing NIGGARD with NEGRO. The Cali govs name is an example of this northern Euro derivative. The fact that (white) folks try to smooth over their use of the N-word by saying, and I quote, “IT JUST MEANS A LOW DOWN DIRTY PERSON.” No doubt you’ve said that a thousand times.

    That shows the words relationship to caste and class. Niggard + Negro = Nigger. Profile that! Tell em you’ve got my permission to hang onto the “N” for special effect.

  8. I. Langalibalele

    I just want to add, in reply to your earlier statement, hatred was never whipped up by a false story around a word like “picnic”. No. You need to substantiate THAT. Hatred is not whipped up by greed or fear, either. It is whipped up because people do not face the truth and because they need falsehoods and half-truths to defend their little comfort zones.

    I find it amusing how you have turned the whole history of lynching on its head. You call me a troll but here is a link back to my page. (http://mbantunyankompong.wordpress.com/) Feel free to add a comment on how 500 years of genocidal racism have been suddenly overturned and reverse racism is the new black.

  9. There are so many more extremely important issues taking place in the world today which would assist in honestly eradicating racism, sexism and many other ism’s. It is amazing that the author of this blog would waste the time in a fruitless attempt to change the meaning of the word picnic – when we all know that it stems from Pick A Nigger to hang while white folk sit around and watch the brutal, unethical, demise of a human being while enjoying their bag lunches that servants spit in before packaging.

  10. Of course, Renee Smith, the point is that you are the one who are trying to change the meaning, and these attempts to change the meaning and paint all users of the term as racist are worth fighting precisely because they stir up racial hatred. Racism is, as we all agree, an important issue. This is a language blog, and language is sometimes used to attack. It has been used to attack black people and other non-white people. No one should paint over that. But, far from redressing those wrongs, firing up hatred with false stories perpetuates them.

    If “We all” is those who actually care to find out the truth about these things, rather than looking for reasons to attack, then “We all” know that the “pick a nigger” story is not the truth but a lie created only for the purpose of fomenting hatred and building divisive power. And that will never, ever cure the wrongs we all who are opposed to racism are trying to fight.

  11. Asw Mr. Langalibalele says, hatred “is whipped up because people do not face the truth and because they need falsehoods and half-truths to defend their little comfort zones.” Those who are invested in continuing a divisive approach of inter-racial hatred, who want only to gain power in the most convenient way and to feel the false high of self-righteous anger, do not want to face the truth that some of the stories they are using are falsehoods and half-truths.

    The truly sad thing is that this all undermines the good that could be done by focusing on genuinely racist uses of language, of which there are still many.

  12. Also, Mr. Langalibalele, thanks for the link to your blog. You make some interesting statements with regard to some words such as “niggard” that are not what my sources have. Perhaps you’d be willing to share your sources of information?

    WRT lynching, no one is denying that it happened. We’re all in agreement that it happened, and that is something that needs to be addressed because what caused it is not gone yet. But the canard about “picnic” distracts instead. And, yes, it does stir up anger and hatred. That was why I wrote this in the first place: university students and others screaming in rage that those who use the word are racist. Which, even if the etymology were true, would still not appropriately address the intentions of the users who had no awareness of its origins. But the etymology is not true either. Let’s move on from that and look at racism today clearly.

    And I do think all of this illustrates just how important language is.

  13. Weirdly enough, I. Langalibalele, I don’t think anyone except you mentioned “reverse racism.”

    If “reverse racism” exists, nobody was citing it as a factor in the demonization of the word picnic.

    I too would be really interested in your etymological sources, as the ones I consulted (including the Online Etymological Dictionary gave entirely different origins for niggardly (from the French or possibly Old Norse) and the other term which is generally accepted to have been derived from the Latin for “black.”

    Regardless, I don’t generally use niggardly because of its unfortunate false friend—better to substitute a synonym, which is easy enough to do, than to alienate and distract readers. However, there do not always exist easy substitutes, and it seems a shame to lose relatively innocuous words from the language through misinformation. It seems an even greater shame that misinformation is perpetuated and that unsupported claims are given the weight of truth.

    I can’t tell people how to think, or how this word or that word should make them feel. I’ve enough experience of how even well-intentioned language can alienate and demean to know that it’s not enough to tell someone “well, the author didn’t mean that word to hurt you,” when a word has a history of usage with a particular connotation or denotation

    But just plain making things up doesn’t really do anyone any credit. Perpetuating thoroughly debunked research is at best an example of credulity, and at worse an example of dishonesty, whatever the ideology that motivates the misinformation.

    And again, I wonder why the people who say that the author of this blog is wasting his time writing about language are wasting their time telling him that he’s wasting his time.

    Isn’t that all a bit recursive?

  14. I. Langalibalele

    Thanks for looking in on my anti-racist, anti-imperialist blog. While you want substantiation for the word N-I-G-G-E-R, why? It is clear what I stated. Don’t think William Safire or the dictionary has the lowdown on everything. Some of us are thinkers, too. Like the word “honkie”. Most people think automatically that it is a word black people made up to sully white folks. Well, of course the word refers to “Honkers”, shnozzes, noses! But we didn’t make it up. The word Yankee is a version of it that the Indians used. Yet the word comes from Britain. Honkies were poor whites who wiped their honkers on their sleeves. HONKY TONK: a place where honkies go to “tonk” (hold your nose and say “talk”). Cracker. From WHIP CRACKER, meaning an oppressor, an evil boss, a racist. Does Webster’s tell you that, I don’t think so. If you need any more education, drop a comment on my blog.

  15. Naturally, I too like to think about words, not just take them at face value. But of course I can’t just go ahead and think, “Well, this word sounds like this, and the connection seems plausible, so it must be so.” That would be like saying, “Well, you look to me like the guy they described as having done that crime, so I’m going to assume it was you.” So I go to the research. I like the Oxford English Dictionary best because of the depth of detail it has in its research — tracing the usages as far back as anyone can find data. And as it happens, there are quite a few people out there who like seeing if they can find earlier or clearer data for words to show where they really come from, and the OED makes use of that research when it updates. Good, solid evidence is always much better than “This looks right.”

    But the OED is a very big thing and updating it can take some time, so it doesn’t always have the most recent data. Interestingly, the OED doesn’t have any clear ultimate source for HONKY or HONKY-TONK (and, because it’s a bit behind on some kinds of slang, it doesn’t have the sense of CRACKER you’re referring to at all). It only has citations for HONKY going to the mid-20th century, and for HONKY-TONK back to 1894. So if you have good evidence for the origins you mention, or can find someone who does, you’ll do everyone a favour — and help improve the historic record — by letting the OED know about it: http://dictionary.oed.com/ .

  16. I. Langalibalele

    Well, proves black folks didn’t make up Honky, now doesn’t it, so its not “reverse racism.” Honky obviously came before Honky Tonk, which is a bar or a juke joint. PICNIC came out about the same period as Honky Tonk from the same racist culture and OED ain’t a history book.

    Does the OED tell you where JUKE comes from? What about JAZZ? Both African words. OED also says Okay come from Oll Korrect(?); that is wrong. Okeh is another (West) African derivative.

    Of course, far as CRACKER goes, it has fallen out of use with white people since the Sixties and is now considered an insult. But the dictionary is slipping because it is not perfectly objective and its pool of researches don’t always take on tough embarassing jobs. There were Negro League teams called Alabama Black Crackers (“firecrackers”). OED doesn’t mention this usage tho the other usage comes from Whip Cracker, just like I sed.

  17. Actually, the OED _is_ a history book. It’s one of the most reliable sources you can get on the history of English words. For instance, it tells us that picnic comes from French pique-nique, seen in the early 18th century; it gives us the following quotations and dates from English sources:

    1748 LD. CHESTERFIELD Let. 29 Oct. IV. 1255, I like the description of your pic-nic, where I take it for granted that your cards are only to break the formality of a circle.
    c1800 E. C. KNIGHT Autobiogr. I. 45 We stayed here [i.e. at Toulon] till the 17th [Feb. 1777] and on the previous day went to a ‘pique-nique’ at a little country house not far from the town.
    1803 Pic Nic 8 Jan. 1/1 The title of Pic Nic, given to this Paper, is used in the sense applied to it by a neighbouring Nation, signifying a Repast supplied by Contribution; and to this Miscellany all persons of genius and talent are invited to contribute.
    1807 J. BERESFORD Miseries Human Life II. xv. 38 She’s so full of Fête, and Pic-nic and Opera.
    1826 B. DISRAELI Vivian Grey III. iv, Nature had intended the spot for pic-nics.

    These early citations are from Britain and talk about smorgasbords and outdoor eating in England and France, with no lynchings about at all. If you wish to assert that there is some racist origin, you have to produce evidence. Which you haven’t done. Assertions aren’t evidence. If they were, “String this n***** up, I’m sure he’s the one who done it” would be an acceptable legal principle.

    For the same reason, “obviously” doesn’t do much good without evidence. “This n***** obviously done it, so string him up” is no case at all. It’s the same with words: “honky-tonk” doesn’t require independent “honky” first any more than “hoity-toity” requires “hoity” or “toity” first. No evidence has been found of “honky” meaning “white person” before the mid-20th century; it’s speculated it might come from “hunky” meaning “factory worker,” but that’s not certain. “Honky-tonk,” on the other hand, has clear citations from decades earlier. It’s not impossible that “honky” was around first, but without evidence, it’s just supposition or hypothesis.

    Also, the OED does not say “OK” comes from “Oll Korrect”; it gives it as from “Old Kinderhook.” The research by a large number of interested parties, recounted ably at http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-oka1.htm , indicates that both are actually sources. Many people have observed that OK sounds very similar to something from another language: for instance, Scots och aye! (or perhaps Ulster Scots Ough aye!), “yes, indeed!”; Mandingo O ke, “certainly”; Wolof waw kay, “yes indeed”; and Finnish oikea, “correct, exact.” It would be good if any of these leads panned out, but the evidence shows they are all coincidental — English no more got OK from any of them than the Wolof and Mandingo borrowed words from the Scots or Finns.

    The OED says that juke comes from West African languages, e.g., Wolof dzug. It lists a wide variety of possibilities for jazz, but the problem with words that come out of vernacular culture is that they can exist for quite a while without being written down, and so jazz is a tough one to sort out for sure.

    The OED, like any reputable linguistic source, is in no way uncomfortable or afraid to find non-European origins for words. In fact, etymologists delight in that sort of thing… when they can find it and prove it.

  18. “Bulldoze” – that’s a word to check out in the OED. Much more troubling origin, if I recall correctly.

    • Wow — you’re right. Here are two early citations for the first use:

      1876 American Newspr., If a negro is invited to join it [a society called ‘The Stop’], and refuses, he is taken to the woods and whipped. This whipping is called a ‘bull-doze’, or doze fit for a bull.
      1881 Sat. Rev. 9 July 40/2 A ‘bull-dose’ means a large efficient dose of any sort of medicine or punishment.

      That said, there is no one using that word today that has this in mind; now everyone thinks of heavy equipment. And (I’m sure you know this, but I’m tossing it in for the benefit of anyone else who might be reading) we can’t call a word offensive if no one who uses it is even aware any more of the originally offensive origins, any more than we can insist that “throw” means “twist” or “silly” means “blessed” (which they did centuries ago) — or that Bill Ayers is, in 2008, a terrorist. Current usage determines meaning; anything that is outside of the awareness of the users is useful historical information but is not relevant to the current value of the word.

  19. Langalibalele and Sesquiotic, you may both be right. Words travel, and often the meaning changes in the journey. Consider “gay”, for instance.
    “Picnic” may have started out as Sesquiotic suggests, but then later changed (at a specific place and time) to refer to the barbarous practice of having a snack while watching people hang.
    This, however, would be only one stop on the journey of the word “picnic”. Words can mean different things to people because their experience of the word is different.
    The whole history of a word should be considered-not only that which academic research reveals, but the testimony of those who have other experience.

  20. There are some important differences between “gay” and “picnic,” however: in the here and now, “gay” cannot be said without people thinking “homosexual.” That is its current meaning, and that meaning shift took place through active common use. “Picnic,” on the other hand, has never been commonly used to mean “lynch a black person and have lunch while watching.” It is undeniable that there were lynchings, and that on some occasions people did sit and eat while watching, but such al fresco lunches while watching an illegal hanging were never the main occasion on which people had picnics nor the thing that the great majority of English speakers thought of when hearing “picnic,” and the sense of “picnic” never, except possibly for a very few aberrant people, involved a lynching as a defining character. To call all picnics — or the word “picnic” — racist because some people ate on the grass while watching a lynching is like calling trees, ropes, or sandwiches racist because they were involved. Or like calling all white people racist.

    The meaning of a word is what it is currently used to mean. No one uses “awful” in a positive sense anymore, so it would be wrong to say that it must be a positive word now just because that’s how it was once used. An acquaintance of mine once insisted that the city we were in (Calgary) wasn’t a city because it didn’t have a cathedral, since the medieval definition of a city was a town with a cathedral. But the fact that Calgary did and does have a cathedral is actually irrelevant: if “city” ever meant that, it doesn’t now. And likewise, it’s actually irrelevant that “picnic” did not come from “pick a nigger”; it’s simply not used to mean that now. Just as “bulldoze” is not used to mean “whip a man almost to death.”

    You seem to have a view of academic research that is perhaps a bit lopsided. Although academics use books, and lots of them, real life _is_ the ideal and proper subject of academic research. Real-life research is called “primary research”; anything farther removed from it is at best “secondary.” And linguists have to learn how to do field research. Inasmuch as there are people out there who have experiences to share that contradict, augment or ramify what academic researchers have thus far found, any responsible researcher will want to hear them. It’s true that not all academics are responsible, but it’s also true that academics love finding things that prove some previously held belief wrong. Academic researchers, as a rule, want to find new things to make their names; there’s a bit of Indiana Jones in the self-image of every academic. If one researcher won’t accept something because it will bring down his whole edifice of theory, another will be waiting with the wrecking ball.

    So any concrete evidence contradicting the accepted etymological account for “picnic” or any other word is always welcomed with wide-open arms. Really, people who study etymology _love_ these twists and turns. But it has to be _concrete evidence_. Not simply “I see these people in this picture eating on the grass while a lynching is happening, and therefore ‘picnic’ must have originated from this and in this way.” Conjecture doesn’t cut it; it needs evidence, or it’s just hypothesis.

    And, again, etymology is useful information but current usage is determined by current usage, not a word’s history. The most abstemious churchwoman will eat a sandwich, even though sandwiches were invented by and are named after a hard-drinking gambler. And she will eat it at a picnic without it making her a racist.

    But this discourse, this tale about the origin of “picnic,” may, if it gains enough influence, have just that effect: if no one can think of “picnic” without thinking of racism and lynchings, then the word will, like it or not, have changed through the pressure of common usage, just as you suggest. Not because of its past, but because of pressures in the present. It wouldn’t be the first time that mistaken beliefs about a word have changed its meaning.

  21. Lately, in the middle-school population of southern New England, the word “gay” does seem to be acquiring a meaning that does not imply “homosexual”. For about three or four years I have heard it used to refer to someone who is un-cool or socially awkward–as in, “He’s so gay, he doesn’t know who Beyonce is.” The word is also being used to refer to something incongruous: The other day, a twelve-year old told me: “You know what is so gay….” and then went on to explain some inconsistency he had noticed in a TV show.

    This particular usage of “picnic” as a lynching luncheon was new to me. The only food and lynching association that comes to my mind is the drupe-like imagery in the song, “Strange Fruit”, sung by Billie Holiday and others.

    Regarding common usage–at a particular point in time–being the main determinant of a word’s meaning, I have to agree that that is the case. Can’t hold back the floodwaters. However, sometimes I like to root for the less common usage, especially if it is more historically correct. A case in point is the word “liberal”. It is used so much today to refer to what is probably more accurately described as some blend of a Social Democrat, Secular Humanist, and God knows what else–because it is rarely defined by those using it. The more historical meaning of being tolerant and believing in an individual’s ability to make correct and rational judgments has somehow vanished. Common usage can obscure understanding and impede communication when one of the parties involved in a discussion has a more historical, and by no means incorrect, understanding of the word used. I guess people need to sit down and define their terms. Minority usage shouldn’t dictate to the majority, but sometimes the majority (common usage) dictates to the minority.

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