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Careful With That Etymology:

I just got a political e-mail that began with:

Where did the word "picnic" comes from?

It was typical to have a picnic on a Friday evening in Oklahoma. The word was short for "pick a nigger" to lynch. They would lynch a Black male and cut off body parts as souvenirs. This went on every weekend in this country, and it was all across the county. . . .

This set my myth-detection antennae a-quiverin', and sure enough this is yet another usage myth, much like the claims that "nitty-gritty" originally referred to debris (including dead bodies) in the holds of slave ships, or that "handicapped" stems from handicapped people supposedly begging with their caps in their hands. In fact, Snopes says it's a myth, and the dictionaries I've checked note a perfectly innocent etymology for the word.

This reminds me of two tips I thought I'd pass along:

(1) Lots of the most interesting etymological claims that are bandied about on the Net and in the popular press are bunk. (The old chestnut about "fuck" being an acronym from "for unlawful carnal knowledge" is another example.) I don't know why this is especially common for etymological assertions, but that's what I've found. But don't trust any etymological claims -- especially the interesting ones -- unless you verify them in a reputable dictionary (and maybe not even then).

(2) More broadly, if you're tempted to forward such a claim -- etymological or not -- check it out. Check it on Snopes. Check it in a reference work; there are plenty available for free online. And this is especially so if you're making a broader political point, as my correspondent was. Why ruin your credibility at the outset, by passing along long-debunked errors?

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Incorrect Etymologies:
  2. Careful With That Etymology:
Incorrect Etymologies:

Charles Lembke writes: "I suggest the more interesting word origin stories be called 'entomologies' until they've been thoroughly debugged."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Incorrect Etymologies:
  2. Careful With That Etymology: